In Nathalia Vega’s Etsy shop, she sells three T-shirts designed to look like makeshift, rec-league softball jerseys: One is red and emblazoned with the words, “Team Moderna.” Another is baby blue and reads, “Team Pfizer.” And a third is maroon, printed with “Team Johnson & Johnson.” Each sells for $17.45, and features a gigantic number “21” below the inscription, signaling the hopeful future of our new, freshly immunized year.
“I got the vaccine, and the first thing I get asked by people who have it is, ‘Which one?’” says Vega, in an email to Vox. “The response is either ‘Me too!’ or, ‘I got a different one.’” She, like many other vendors on Etsy, has been printing these shirts for barely a week when we speak, and already has made over 30 sales without much of an advertising effort. “It’s definitely something people are searching for. I get daily orders at this point.”
The vaccines did not arrive with a partisan branding campaign. Pfizer and Moderna aren’t buying up billboards and TV commercials to overpower the airwaves and besmirch the rival inoculations. The shot is free to all Americans, and experts have repeatedly explained that the vaccines are all very effective at preventing severe illness. (Though the CDC and FDC have called for a pause in distributing the Johnson & Johnson shot after six women out of the 7 million people who have had the vaccine developed blood clots.) But none of that has stopped the population from attributing old-fashioned consumer allegiance to their injection.
On Twitter, posters are admiring the aesthetic tastefulness of Moderna’s graphic design. “The color scheme, font, everything. Just absolute perfection,” writes public policy expert Colin Mortimer, linking to a sterile stock image of the vaccine dose. Julia Reinstein, a reporter at BuzzFeed, assigned a thoughtful personality to each of the four major biotech companies with shots in circulation, in the same way Tumblr fandoms attempt to identify the essences of the characters in Little Women or the residents of Carrie Bradshaw’s Manhattan.
“Moderna is terribly chic but trying too hard. AstraZeneca is zany and kind. J&J identifies as the mom friend and will tell you so,” she writes. NBC’s Kalhan Rosenblatt reported that TikTok has emerged as a West Side Story-like warzone between young Zoomers who’ve received either the Pfizer or Moderna dose. (One of the recurrent trends on the platform is an audio that says, “Um, only hot people got the Pfizer. If you got Moderna then I don’t know what to tell you.”)
The inoculation process has transformed into a tongue-in-cheek fashion choice; a Band-Aid plastered on your shoulder is the spiciest trend of the summer. We’ve all lived through an eternity of fad skirmishes — boxers vs. briefs, Coke vs. Pepsi, Nintendo vs. Sega — but nothing holds a candle to 2021 and our appointment for a subdermal, antibody-producing serum.
It seems likely that this factionalism comes in part from the subtle gradations in each of the vaccines. It was easy to get lost in the scattered reports of side effects and immunity thresholds as the jabs slowly made themselves available to the public. Some people have been afforded the chance to shop around for the shot that seems most appealing; to pick and choose the amalgamation of protection percentages, hangover risks, and scheduling annoyances that best fit our lifestyles.
But in the rush to get jabbed, most of the newly vaccinated population simply showed up for whatever shot was available in their neighborhood and proudly took up the banner of the Pfizer Pham or the Moderna Mafia from there. The American medical apparatus has become so entwined with American capitalism that we’ve learned to navigate both of those worlds with the same language. It was inevitable that the population would engage in its Retail Mindset when something as existential as a coronavirus vaccine still bears a company’s name.
“It is natural to compare brands. There isn’t clear data on the efficacy of one versus the other, but that doesn’t stop people from forming opinions,” says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. “The companies and public health officials have been very careful to avoid comparing the vaccines, but that doesn’t stop people from forming perceptions.”
Of course, most of this vaccine friction is in jest. Nobody is authentically demeaning each other for their jab. The TikTok kids are enjoying a meme, and wearers of Vega’s Team Pfizer and Team Moderna shirts aren’t priming a throwdown in the streets. Instead, Vega speculates that most of her customers are simply latching onto anything they can to stay invigorated and excited as we approach the 14th month of the pandemic. After a period of unimaginable social isolation, society has grown thirsty for companionship. Even the most basic mutual bond — like sharing the same spike-protein blockers — is enough to spark joy after circling the drain in endless Zooms.
“I think there’s a sense of shared camaraderie after such a terrible year. People are longing to be part of something and a way to connect to other people — and to create some friendly competition,” says Vega. “I’ve actually gotten orders from full families where each member got a different shot, so the feeling I’m getting from people is more excitement rather than an air of superiority for a specific vaccine.”
That said, Vega doesn’t want to facilitate a serious schism within the vaccination infrastructure. Like the rest of us, she wants to see as many people inoculated as quickly as possible so we can return to some semblance of normalcy by the summer. In fact, Vega recently added a fresh new arrival to her store: a white shirt with rainbow text that reads, simply, “Team Vaccine.” “My shop was not created to chase the fuel of negativity,” she tells me, “but instead to fuel belonging.”
That’s the hope. Unlike all the other famous brand battles in America, eventually the forces of Team Pfizer, Team Moderna, and Team J&J will find peace — agreeing that despite the slight deviations in reaction sickness and graphic design, we’ve been on the same side all along. Only then will we reenter a world where we can get back to debating the topics that really matter. The superiority of the Big Mac over the Whopper, or Apple over Samsung — things we can finally settle once we defeat our common enemy: Team Covid.