By Rebecca Fish
A recent story in the New Yorker profiled Silicon Valley billionaires, who are investing large sums of money on preparedness supplies and offshore properties where they can hunker down in case of a disaster. The article quotes the CEO of Reddit, who claims that over 50% of Silicon Valley billionaires have “apocalypse insurance,” meaning property in New Zealand or some type of hideaway. Who are these people that prepare for the worst-case scenario? Preppers. Your average prepper isn’t a Silicon Valley billionaire; but the prepper movement is growing, and it’s crossing more economic and demographic groups. Natural disasters and political instability, both at home and abroad, have heightened the interest amongst many people in being ready.
In 2015, Emergent BioSolutions undertook a multi-phase research project to better understand the prepper movement. A random sample of 1,022 people aged 18-65 was surveyed to explore prepping behavior. Findings suggested that the average prepper is not as extreme as many television programs would have you believe. Rather, your average prepper is an ordinary person trying to do his/ her best for his/her family by preparing for emergency events. The defining characteristic of a prepper is a belief in self-sufficiency and a desire to be prepared for whatever life throws at you. This could include preparing for anything from a natural disaster to a man-made electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.
Approximately 4.5% of the respondents in our research reported themselves as “committed preppers,” meaning that they actively purchase and stockpile supplies in preparation for different types of disaster scenarios. While the exact number of preppers is difficult to estimate, research suggests that anywhere from 4-9 million Americans are engaged in prepping behavior and the activity has increased since 2013.
Another 16.5% of people reported that they prep to a moderate extent. Prepping isn’t restricted to the United States. Bloomberg reports that Japanese preppers are buying $19,000 bomb shelters, and in South Korea the term prepper is becoming increasingly common  A video entitled “survival bag” generated 400,000 views in South Korea in less than two weeks. Preppers are your neighbors, your co-workers, and your friends.
|Earn over $100,000 per year||43%|
|Hold a college, or advanced graduate degree||45%|
The likelihood of needing to be prepared varies depending on who you ask. Most people see the threat of an EMP or global pandemic to be a relatively low probability event. Many preppers might agree. However, the high impact nature of these events is their primary concern. Yishan Wong, a Facebook employee, explains, “(Preppers) do not necessarily think a collapse is likely. They consider it a remote event, but one with a very severe downside, so…spending a fraction of their net worth to hedge against this… is a logical thing to do.”  It’s the consequence of not being prepared that scares people the most. In their minds, it’s a bit like buying flood insurance; you may not need it, but it’s nice to have if you do.
Market for CBRNe Products
Why does this matter to biodefense or U.S. preparedness efforts? First, preppers represent a market opportunity for certain medical countermeasure (MCM) products. This is important, because MCMs tend to have a limited market focused on governments, and they are priced low relative to other pharmaceuticals. Therefore, many companies are less interested in investing in the biodefense space, which results in less innovation.   However, if companies could sell to private sector customers, the business case for new, better products would be strengthened. Potassium iodide tablets, which are used for radioactive iodine poisoning from a nuclear power plant or nuclear weapon, are one example of this concept.
In certain areas of the world, many preppers purchase these tablets as an important component of their personal stockpile. After the 2011 Fukushima Daiiche nuclear disaster in Japan, potassium iodide tablets stocked out everywhere due to overwhelming demand.   Similarly, during the Ebola crisis, CBNBC reported that sales of one type of full-body protective suit increased 131,000 percent on Amazon. Gas masks and Ebola survival guides shot up the rankings as well.” As a further example, twenty four percent of preppers in our research own a gas mask. These data suggest that preppers have demonstrated interest in CBRNe supplies and represent a market for some preparedness supplies.
Our research suggests that preppers spend a sizeable portion of their disposable income on prepping related activity.
- Fifty percent of preppers spend more than $500 per year on supplies.
- 15%-30% of preppers spend more than $1,000 annually on supplies; with an average spend of $1,850.
- Outliers spend vastly more than the average person. In our research, one man spent $10,000 annually on supplies, and another one spent $75,000.
The take away is that many preppers expend sizeable sums of money in pursuit of preparedness.
Many people might argue that preppers don’t need these products, or they will misuse them. This misses an important point about the audience. Preppers are individualists, and they don’t think that it’s anyone’s job to tell them what they need. They want to make that decision based upon their own research and analysis. Moreover, most preppers have a high degree of product knowledge, because they spend significant time researching and evaluating what products they choose to purchase. They absolutely recognize that many of these events are unlikely to occur, but they see value in being prepared for the worst case scenario. Obviously, many MCMs are not available for a direct to consumer sale. However, some products are and creative efforts to expand the MCM market and support future innovation should be considered.
Millions of Civilians Who Care
A second reason that preppers are important to biodefense is simply because there are millions of these individuals all over the country and they want to be prepared. They seek out information and knowledge to better protect their families, which is an asset to organizations like the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The government could leverage this interest to increase flexible, community preparedness and improve resilience. Preppers want detailed information to better inform their understanding of different kinds of threats. They value knowledge. Federal agencies should consider ways to engage preppers in national planning and preparedness efforts. It also might be interesting to further research the viability of forward deploying select emergency supplies to civilians to increase preparedness.
Preppers are heavily engaged online and use existing channels to share information and purchase supplies. For example, Amazon has a specialized platform that 53% of preppers report having used.
Preppers also rely on word of mouth within their community. Popular prepper Facebook pages have over 750,000 unique views each month. There are preppers You Tube tutorials that have more than 380,000 subscribers. Agencies like the CDC and FEMA should consider how to tap into this community in a way that would be well received. It’s a new avenue to reach millions of Americans.
The role of first responders and law enforcement is well recognized in response to emergency events, but who else will be ready if the unimaginable were to occur? Preppers. Maybe it’s time to start learning more about this group and consider ways to leverage their interest and commitment to preparedness.
Rebecca Fish is the Vice President of Marketing at Emergent Biosolutions. Emergent manufactures medical countermeasures against many chemical and biological threats, including anthrax, smallpox, botulism, and known chemical warfare agents. The company recently made an FDA cleared, chemical decontamination kit available to civilians. The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of Emergent.
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 Andrew Pollack, “Demand for Anti-Radiation Drug Surges,” The New York Times, March 15, 2011, sec. Health, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/health/16iodide.html.
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