What’s the Deal with Pharma Advertising? (1)

[June 11, 2010]

As anyone knows who gets within 15 feet of consumer-facing pharmaceutical advertising, the challenges are daunting. Between mountains of Federal regulation, inescapable scientific data and the humbling responsibility of communicating risk factors, pharmaceutical brand managers and the ad agencies they hire have very little wiggle room.

Add to that the distrust expressed by some Americans for drug companies and you quickly realize you have a tiger by the tail—though decidedly not the cute fuzzy kind that has helped other consumer brands reach out to audiences for decades.

And that’s another aspect of the problem. While creative development of concepts for pharmaceutical brands needs to be aware of the underlying principles of standard-issue consumer advertising—including the standard issue “out-of-the-box” variety—any direct transfer of those principles to prescription products is very ill-advised.

Why? Because without the unfettered freedom to promise something, even something ephemeral, traditional advertising has very little to work with. Tony the Tiger can scream “tastes Grrr-ate!” with no compunction, even if not everyone would agree. But the crux of the biscuit for pharmaceutical products is the strict avoidance of unsubstantiated medical claims.

Given those constraints, does that mean pharmaceutical advertising is doomed to mediocrity?

Clichés even clichés would be embarrassed to use.
Based on casual observation of the industry’s gigantic annual ad output, I’m tempted to say “yes.” After all, you reap what you sow. If the main ingredient of your creative strategy is the avoidance of regulatory sanction, you can only produce a steady stream of deadly material. Think for a moment of the medium’s basic visual and situational vocabulary:

• Genial physicians in lab coats, stethoscopes around necks, regardless of specialty
• Childishly simplified anatomical diagrams, guaranteed not to shock anyone into
   thinking they actually have internal organs—much less 
a body
• Problem face/Solution face head shots
• Satisfied patients “getting back to the important things in life”
• Happy babies and/or exuberant puppies
• Animated graphic metaphors or mascots (budget permitting)

In this Bizzaro World of happy face consumerism, the avoidance of controversy has led the vast majority of pharmaceutical advertisers to fall back on an age-old formula: “Get this now, it’s good.”

Message on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Trouble is, laboring under the strict ukase of regulatory watchdogs, the formula’s signature message becomes, no pun intended, somewhat crippled:

Were we to advise you to discuss this product with your healthcare provider, your healthcare provider may consent to incorporate it in your treatment regimen, based on your specific medical history and current state of health. Only your healthcare provider knows if the potentially life-threatening side-effects of this medication are significantly outweighed by its benefits—whose mode of action we don’t necessarily understand.

Clearly, something is out of joint.

Is there a cure for chronic mediocrity in consumer-facing pharmaceutical advertising? Only your regulatory board knows for sure. Yet some pharmaceutical advertisers do manage to reach out to consumers with a motivating message. How do they do it? As I’ll try to show in the next few posts, part of the answer lies in forging a true emotional connection—by giving consumers more confidence in their ability to help manage their own treatment in simple, straightforward ways.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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