What’s the Deal with Pharma Advertising? (3)

[Jiune 18, 2010]

[This post reflects the state of the sites discussed at the time. The issues raised are still relevant to the discussion of consumer-facing pharmaceutical advertising in the US.]

As everyone living in some quadrant of the communication industry knows, one person’s clarity is another person’s muddle. That this has as much to do with expectation as it does with demography, is perhaps less obvious.

In my experience, many people’s reception of content is driven powerfully by expectation. If they decide to watch, say, a funny movie, they’re ready to accept humorous thoughts and presentations. Those same people may have trouble accepting humor in any other context, especially a pharmaceutical ad campaign.

For that sector of your audience, using humor to sell prescription drugs could be a risky proposition. A consumer driven by expectation will have trouble changing gears. But what’s a traditional advertiser, much less a 21st century engagement strategist going to do? Risks aside, humor is a powerful way to break down barriers to acceptance of the New and the Different.

Maybe a comparison of two different uses of humor in pharmaceutical advertising will help bring clarity’s fine line into sharper focus, at least where it concerns humor.

Wholesome, light, inoffensive. 
The current Web presence for the diabetes medication Actos illustrates one way humor might help visitors grasp the details and feel motivated to mention the drug by name to their doctors. In the marquee, cute animated characters personify different internal organs and biochemicals. Clicking them brings them to life, upon which they share their part of the larger diabetes story.

This is a wholesome, mainstream and gentle kind of humor, one part Toy Story, one part Pokémon. Just as important, each one speaks only briefly and conveys a single, concrete packet of information. It’s also worth pointing out that this colorful presentation carries no “associative baggage,” in that nothing that happens here can make our minds stray off topic.

Universality derailed.
By contrast, consider the much-discussed campaign for the sleep aid Rozerem, which I gather met mixed reviews on a number of fronts. In purely creative terms, the underlying thought is, as I see it, absolutely brilliant. The umbrella theme “Your dreams miss you,” is a perfect illustration of the difference between creative copywriting and mere typing—precisely because it was not “written” but arrived at by astute observation.

Yet judging from the digital chatter about the campaign, I see it touched a nerve, the wrong nerve at that. You don’t have to dig very deep into “The Conversation” to see what I mean. Some of the comments revolve around the very idea of using dream imagery. Considering the long tradition of “dream sequences” in major films, I find this incomprehensible. That is, until I remember what I said earlier about the impact of expectation.

“Insomnia’s a serious topic,” says one sector of the audience, “are you making fun of me with your edgy humor?”

People, one learns, are touchy about the things that affect them directly. Yet, despite this campaign’s mixed reviews, I don’t think we should conclude that the use of humor in pharmaceutical advertising is now “dead in the water.”

There are, however, a few things to take away from this experiment. For one, the creative choices may have been too narrowly focused. Abraham Lincoln is, after all, one of this country’s most iconic historical figures—especially in the idealized form he takes on in statuary and currency.

Even this sympathetic portrayal of a kinder, gentler Lincoln, creates for many, I’ll wager, uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. In a similar way, the connotations surrounding the talking beaver are, to put it mildly, a tad too dense for the context. Sure, it’s a striking image, but not one likely to evoke much sympathy. That the most familiar TV spot in the campaign also skewed 100% male may also have had an impact on its appeal.

Perhaps also, the sheer multiplicity of images is simply too distracting or, just as important, too seductive. Despite my genuine enthusiasm for the creative impulse behind this campaign, I have to wonder if, by implication, it promises too much. For those, like me, who respond to it positively, is it so entertaining as to blunt my critical judgment of the medication?

Rethink the process, not the ideal.
Not that any of this discussion nails the issues down at one end of the spectrum or the other. These are decisions that need to be made on a case by case basis for every campaign. Great creative results from a process, not a mechanical snapping together of “best practices.” It would be very detrimental to the future of pharmaceutical advertising—and consumer engagement in general—if the Rozerem campaign were to become the poster child for Marketing Anxiety (“Don’t let this happen to your next campaign”).

You need only look at an example at the extreme other end of the spectrum to see how the issues at hand are far from cut and dried. At Avandia.com, the rigid display of horribly retouched head shots studiously avoids engaging the imagination in any way.

This “just the facts, ma’am” approach says nothing more than that Avandia is approved to treat diabetes, in other words, exactly what a “proactive seeker” would have known going in. In the absence of any conceptual frame work, the prospect of navigating through page after page of medicalized marketing material is even more daunting than usual.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at the way a unifying theme can, without breaking the rules, give users a motivating frame of reference from which to explore and evaluate drug benefits and features.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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