Despite years of experience in the real world of stringent regulations, many pharma brand managers still believe their mission is to push the boundary of the permissible in an effort to promote a doubtful claim. So begins an exhausting round of creation and revision in which language is tortured and communication is reduced to a string of factoids.
As any rational person could foresee, it’s all for naught. The medical, legal and regulatory departments of even the tiniest pharmaceutical companies know their mandate: to ensure the FDA doesn’t send them a warning letter. The result is overreaction, leading to the stiff, stilted and stagnant prose we now accept as the norm in pharma advertising.
It doesn’t have to be that way. If marketing, medical, regulatory and legal teams met with their advertising agency on at least a quarterly basis, it would take nothing more than honest work to find a viable solution to any marketing problem.
A marketer who feels market share is slipping could discuss ways to cast their brand in the most favorable light. Trouble is, this would mean moving away from the “pre-approved copy,” brand managers cling to like a mystical talisman. Like such a talisman, this pre-approved copy is incomprehensible to its supplicants. It is simply understood to work. The result is a process that values consistency over contextual sense, and demands that every single communication contain exactly the same magic words—regardless of its intended purpose.
But the first step in making pharma advertising actually motivate its many audiences is to kick this addiction to all types of mechanical thinking.
Breaking the obsessive cycle.
The antidote to this toxic behavior is a multistep process. It begins with a frank discussion of the problems implicit in marketing to consumers or the healthcare community. Instead of charging ahead with a bold statement that will never get past the lawyers, brand managers must build a consensus with medical, legal, regulatory and agency creatives about what can and can’t be said about the product in different contexts for different purposes.
This is important, because a creative team can only motivate an audience to action if it works within a coherent messaging strategy. In the absence of such a strategy, it’s common practice for an agency to create a stab-in-the-dark positioning, only to have it arbitrarily eroded over a period of months—until it becomes meaningless.
That’s how we end up with headlines that promote “stepping in the right direction,” accompanied by the image of a pair of sneakers—not for a drug, mind you, that treats topographical disorientation. Somewhere, buried beneath this landslide of silliness is the thought that there are steps one can take to control the condition in question.
As if every other conceivable medication for every other conceivable condition doesn’t start from the premise that it exists to take your health in the right direction.
Clear, declarative and actually true.
But the dreary process leading to ineffective messaging is completely unnecessary. Instead of winnowing down unsupported claims until you settle on something that’s inoffensive, why not start with a powerful affirmation of what you can say under the law?
As I see it, the origin of the status quo lies in the misapprehension that marketing and advertising are fundamentally about coming up with something “poppy,” “strong,” or “catchy.” The memorable ads from the deep past that had those attributes succeeded for only one reason: They were grounded in an underlying thought process that changed the way people thought about the entire product category.
Now, I’m the first to say this is stacking the deck. By law, the FDA cannot allow pharmaceutical companies to communicate the way Volkswagen used to. But the underlying idea—i.e., of having an underlying idea—is something pharmaceutical brand managers can emulate. Not by puffing up their product with not-so-subtle innuendo, but by translating the concrete concerns of their audiences into clear, declarative statements.
Changing this tried and true process requires a radical shift—away from anxiety and authoritarianism toward a collaborative approach that acknowledges and respects the expertise of others. I’ve seen for myself the miraculous change that comes over a “stubborn” regulator once someone bothers to hear them out. The change was so pronounced, I can only equate it to a religious conversion in which everyone in the room who was blind was finally able to see. To see, that is, that great advertising in any field arises from a balance of multiple points of view.