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The COVID-19 Vaccination Hesitancy: Rhetorical Analysis

Since the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019 and early 2020, major pharmaceutical companies worldwide have been in the race to develop a viable vaccine to help curtail the spread of the virus. As expected, the companies’ focus on the rapid development of the vaccine has been met with various issues, including regulatory, political, and even populist pressures, which have significantly slowed down the process. However, many pharmaceutical companies have managed to maneuver these barriers and now offer these vaccines to people around the world. However, the vaccines’ rollout has been, understandably, met with mixed feelings across the globe, with proponents and opponents of the process for various reasons. In the US, for instance, numerous opinion polls have presented statistics and data showing a considerable public skepticism regarding the COVID-19 vaccine (LastWeekTonight 00:03:49). With this in mind, this rhetorical analysis paper focuses on a video of HBO’s show Last Week Tonight, presented by its host John Oliver, as he discusses the prevalent skepticism surrounding the vaccination process in the US. In the video, Oliver relies on publicly available statistics from different institutions, reported cases, and various pre-recorded videos to satirically analyze situations where some people have refused to get the vaccine – primarily based on irrational or incorrect dispositions – as he urges viewers to combat misinformation about the vaccine. This paper, therefore, analyzes how Oliver employs effective rhetorical strategies and emotional appeals to discredit claims put forth by the vaccines’ skeptics while urging and encouraging those who have not received the vaccine to do so.

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In the video, Oliver begins his discourse by demonstrating how the hesitance in getting vaccinated against COVID-19 poses a significant threat to everyone in the country, and by extension, the world (LastWeekTonight 00:00:29). Oliver employs logos to present and defend his argument for acquiring the vaccine using verifiable facts and numbers to appeal to the viewers’ reason. For example, Oliver states that after the first identified strain of COVID -19 in the US in January 2020, the CDC estimated the vaccination threshold needed to reach herd immunity to be about 70% to 90% of the population (LastWeekTonight 00:02:10). In other words, given the estimated communicability or infectivity of the disease, about 75% of the population being vaccinated will confer herd immunity to protect the 25% who are not vaccinated. Oliver further states that the world is now faced with new variants with higher infectivity levels, which require a more significant percentage of the population. In this regard, he highlights the fact that only 60% of the population was willing to take the vaccine (LastWeekTonight 00:02:25). In various parts of the video, the host repeatedly presents data from multiple professional studies, for example, government agencies, renowned educational institutions, and international organizations, to demonstrate the clarity and internal consistency within his argument regarding why people should not be afraid of getting vaccinated.

Even though the host acknowledges that perceptions of the vaccine are primarily affected by various factors, he strategically employs pathos to discredit the views and opinions of those that have not received the vaccine, while also appealing to the beliefs and values of the audience. In the video, Oliver uses pre-recorded videos from various social media platforms of people who refuse to take the vaccine while citing different unreasonable and ignorant reasons. For instance, Oliver satirically analyzes a video of a middle-aged woman being interviewed by a news broadcasting station, who claims that the government is using people as Guinea pigs to test the COVID-19 vaccine (LastWeekTonight 00:12:28). In another video, a man who is arguing against the COVID-19’s vaccine efficacy makes a simple counting error as he talks to the news reporter – a mistake that Oliver effectively uses to his advantage. Oliver uses pathos to discredit the man’s opinions by stating that no sane man should be taking advice, about a topic as important as COVID-vaccines, from someone who cannot count his fingers (LastWeekTonight 00:24:00). Oliver uses satire to get his target audience to change its mind about opposing the COVID-19 vaccine through subtle messaging and humor. The host helps his audience open up their doors of perception by helping them become aware of how illogical the man’s argument sounds. In another part of the video, Oliver employs ethos to support his argument by playing a video of a health professional giving various reasons why people should get the vaccine to appeal to character or credibility based on the speaker’s expertise and trustworthiness (LastWeekTonight 00:14:28). In this example, the host focuses the audience’s attention on the health professional’s reliability and reputation by appealing to character or credibility.

As demonstrated in the TV show Last Week Tonight, effective communication strategies are vital when engaging people to take a stand on important issues in society, such as the government’s control and prevention efforts regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The show demonstrates that some of the challenges that health authorities are currently facing are not only their presentation of information or data about COVID-19 but in their efforts of convincing those that may be hesitant to acknowledge the credibility of this data and information (LastWeekTonight 00:01:32). In such cases, it is evident that emotional factors, such as trust and suspicion play a significant role in the resistance or uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine. Aware of this issue, Oliver uses deductive reasoning throughout the video to convince his audience to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He defends the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines by pointing out the good reputations of the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines and other drugs that people use. Oliver argues that if people trust other drugs made by these pharmaceutical companies, they do not have a valid reason to doubt the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. He also uses the same premise to defend medical professionals who endorse vaccination against COVID-19 by pointing out their irrefutable successes in their field.

In this case, John Oliver successfully uses rhetorical strategies and emotional appeals to pass on his message of encouraging people to get vaccinated. Oliver uses his position as a credible spokesperson, with whom his audience easily identifies and trusts, to create institutional trust. Oliver uses pathos to consider his audience’s possible values and predispositions to adapt to what is essential to the recipients of his message, that is, combating misinformation about the vaccine and encouraging people to get the vaccine. Oliver also successfully uses ethos to communicate the credibility of his message by amplifying the voices and opinions of experts in the health industry and tying these perspectives to his overarching message regarding issues surrounding vaccination hesitancy. Lastly, in his attempt to win over the minds and hearts of vaccine-hesitant audiences, Oliver uses logos as he presents valid, reliable, and publicly available statistics and data from credible institutions to support his argument and further his cause of encouraging members of the public to get vaccinated (LastWeekTonight 00:17:58). Through his efforts, Oliver demonstrates that using the right rhetoric may be the most effective way of fulfilling the goal of establishing trust and swaying opinion over contested public issues, such as the COVID-19 vaccination.

Works Cited

“Covid Vaccines: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).” YouTube, uploaded by LastWeekTonight, 2021, Web.

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