What’s the Deal with Pharma Advertising? (4)

[June 22, 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.]

Considering how many constraints brands face as they try to pitch pharmaceutical products to consumers, the temptation to fall back on a combination of merchandizing and benefit-listing is understandable. As evidenced by zyrtec.com on 6-22-10, there’s no doubt a line of logic running something like this: The brand, having positioned itself offline with the “Love the Air” campaign can and should go straight to the point online, selling direct and selling hard.

As I see it, there’s an inherent problem in expecting consumers to keep one campaign approach in mind while viewing another. With no reference to the offline campaign beyond a tagline resting passively beneath the logo, the only message a site visitor actually encounters is “Get our product now: It’s reasonably priced and has benefits.” Especially in light of the panel to the far right reading “Important news about the recall of certain Zyrtec® children’s products,” I can’t help thinking this home page offers, on balance, a negative user experience.

That’s not to say Zyrtec shouldn’t duly report on recalled items. But it’s especially in bad times that an overriding, branded message is so important. As it stands, there’s nothing here to soften the blow or keep me from wondering if a drug that’s bad for kids is likely to have unacceptable risk factors for adults, too.

Despite this, the page design presents a cheery, candy-colored surface sheen that looks good enough to eat. If the intention is that a simplistic, inviting look is all that’s needed to carry a product with a major PR crisis on its hands, I see this as a major miscalculation.

I suppose some of this “bare bones” thinking has its source in a misinterpretation of consumer research. Believing that consumers don’t like “promotional” language and just want the facts, the brand walks away from branded communication and goes right to hard sell. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have a hard time seeing an orange button labeled “BUY NOW” as anything other than promotional.

Good vibe here…
Of course, in digital space, one communication strategy is never far away from its polar opposite. Without changing product categories, claritin.com speaks in a completely different voice. It does so, you’ll notice, by doing nothing more than carrying over its existing offline thematics. Whether by accident or design “Clarity” is Claritin’s brand message from the product name on up. Sidestepping nagging regulatory concerns about invalidated claims, the message “Live Claritin Clear” grows directly out of a 30,000-mile view of the product’s end-benefit.

Now, I hasten to point out that clariton.com is nobody’s exemplar for high-concept advertising. It simply demonstrates how an ordinary, garden variety concept can shape an effective message. Notice how little this has to do with the actual headlines which could have come out of the headline chapter of “Copywriting for Dummies.”

What was needed here was not a “writer” but a Creative with a eye and an ear for subtext. Also notice that the impact of this message has nothing to do with any kind of wordplay, double-entendre or pop-cultural reference points. It works because it is, in a word, clear.

…lack of buzz there.
As a parting thought, notice how stubbornly nasonex.com ignores decades of experience with consumer marketing to present a home page that wouldn’t have been out of place in a women’s magazine from the early ’60s. At first blush, you might reasonably expect the ad to be for dog food or the ASPCA.

OK, I get it, the product helps with pet dander allergies. But what if I had come to the site having seen the long-running TV campaign that focuses on pollen allergies? Now, I promised myself I wouldn’t get all exercised about the “retro” checkmark graphics, so I won’t. I’ll just put in a congratulatory call to Professor Ronald Mallett at the University of Connecticut.

In my next post, I’ll offer some concluding observations about pharma advertising, as I try to assess the potential to strike a “new deal” between brand managers, regulators and advertising professionals.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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