What’s the Deal with Pharma Advertising? (5)

[June 25, 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.]

In a field as vast and variegated as pharma advertising, I can’t completely ignore the Voice of Reason, telling me that any attempt at generalization is “counter indicated.” Yet, like an aerial photo, the breadth and sweep of overview can sometimes tell us much about the details as it can about the big picture. So excuse me a moment while I stuff a sock in that Mouth of Reason and forge ahead.

Between pharmaceutical campaigns I’ve been personally involved with and ones I’ve analyzed for my own benefit, I believe there’s a serious problem with the entire enterprise. Despite the oceans of hard work and dedication that go into producing pharma advertising, far too much of it is ineffective, in that is does nothing more than convey information.

By now, I’d think it was common knowledge: You can’t sell anything without an enveloping emotional context. That’s certainly true of the American political system, where the smoke screen of “hot button” issues colors our perception of reality, even at the most basic level. It’s also true for anyone who has ever bought a house, a car or snappy new piece of technology. Look me in the eye and tell me you bought it “for a reason.” No matter how you crunch the stats, sales is all about romance.

Mugshot Marketing: Which one’s the perp?
That’s why I continue to be perplexed by home pages like the one built for Exjade. Now, don’t get me wrong. The idea of connecting to consumers with testimonials from current customers is theoretically sound, even if somewhat tired. But there’s a qualitative factor involved that the Exjade home page completely ignores. The bland, de-contextualized headshots and blank lead-in statements can’t hope to get consumers emotionally involved.

That’s because, like the vast majority of advertising testimonials, they are simply too generic, no matter how many details they may contain. At exjade.com, the entire testimonial panel might as well have been replaced with a single sentence: “Lots of people with this condition use our product and like it. Maybe you will too.”

Why do these playing-card headshots fail to connect? Without context, they exist as abstractions only.

By contrast, the Lantus home page leads with a rounded portrait of a satisfied patient. Automatically, we’re drawn into an environment several degrees warmer and that much closer to a real-life encounter, not least because the copy is let out of its hospital bed restraints, if only for one sentence. But wait, there’s more. The smoothly integrated call to join an online community strengthens that connection with a welcoming visual style.

One layer down, the connection continues. Without a lot of fuss and bother, we get another tangible, rounded view of a real person. Not necessarily “a person like you,” but someone who’s story has the texture of everyday life. Of course, the loose-limbed photography style goes a long way toward nailing the feeling of reality—even if every image is handled with a graceful sense of design.

In all of this, I don’t find grand, sweeping “Big Ideas”—the current enemy of the solid, practical work that’s the substance of this industry. Or rather, it’s not an idea that exists to call attention to itself. It is, instead, an Ideal of commitment—a commitment to talk to real people respectfully, honestly and without a trace of today’s “iPad or Death” fashion dichotomies.

Dialogue your way out of victim status.
OK, so here’s where I see an opportunity for change. Both of these testimonial campaigns were conceived, presented and produced under the same legal and ethical constraints. Barring the intervention of a fairy godmother, I can find only two explanations for the deep disparity in quality between them.

First, I assume the Creative and Account teams managing the Lantus account were fortunate enough to work with a brand manager open to influence. There was, I’m willing to bet, none of that dispiriting “Marketing 101” talk in which a client or internal operative effectively sets aside the last 25–30 years of growth in our understanding of consumer motivation.

Second, I must also assume that both agency and client forged real communication with the brand’s internal regulatory board. By doing so, they moved the process away from the knee-jerk paradigms of personal preference (“I’m just not crazy about that photo”) an into a zone of collaboration that transcended out-moded job titles.

As I see it, that’s “the deal” that must be struck in every pharma advertising campaign if it has any hope of having a lasting impact. It’s time we shook ourselves free of that tired victim mentality (“The Man Won’t Let Me Have A Concept”). Instead of whining, agencies, brand managers and regulators must improve their dialogue with each other—and begin a dialogue with the FDA about the tools we need to sell pharmaceutical products effectively.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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