Consumer Pharma Advertising: Who is it for?

[November 6, 2010]

Despite the widespread use of the term “target audience,” most discussion of the audience for a branded communication tends to be fairly generic. Even the tired device of assigning persona names to market segments—”Sally Savvy” or “Andy Anxious”—usually encapsulates only a smaller subset of the generalized generalizations that lie at the core of marketing theory.

Who do we think these people are, exactly? If they’re anything like the people you actually deal with, I’d like to suggest they’re a tad more layered than that.

This Mr. Potato Head view of individuals—as interchangeable variations on a basic theme—is the product of today’s Incredible Shrinking Budget for common sense. Not that it’s hard to understand its appeal. Radical oversimplification makes marketing easier, faster and cheaper. Besides, it’s backed by science.

Taking aim and missing…
Nowhere is the modular view of humanity more apparent than in pharma copy, where, often on a page-by-page basis, marketers reconfigure their audience model to fit the exigencies of the moment. Got a high science point to make? No problem, it’s something everyone can understand, provided we provide a parenthetical user-friendly definition:

JANUVIA should not be used in patients with type 1 diabetes or with diabetic ketoacidosis (increased ketones in the blood or urine). If you have had pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), it is not known if you have a higher chance of getting it while taking JANUVIA.

“Ketones?” My father was a chemist and a chemistry teacher, but do you think I remember what a ketone is? It might as well say “Keystone Kops.” And this from an industry that clearly believes everyone in all 50 states develops temporary ADHD whenever they go online.

And what are we to make of the following passage from the Plavix consumer site?

PLAVIX, taken with aspirin, is also recommended for people who have Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS), a diagnosis that includes heart-related chest pain (unstable angina) and the 2 types of heart attack—acute ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (“STEMI”) and non-ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (“NSTEMI”). If you have been hospitalized with heart-related chest pain (unstable angina) or had a STEMI heart attack, you, too, are at a higher risk for dangerous blood clots and a future heart attack or stroke.

Engaging, no? On the face of it, I can only assume the target persona for this kind of copy is “Stan from Stanford Medical Center.” He’s surely the only consumer I can imagine saying “non-ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction” over his Cocoa Krispies in the morning.

…an imaginary nation of medical students.
Obviously, I wasn’t in the room when these decisions were made. But, at the very least, this message might have been staged more effectively. If regulatory requirements demand such a statement appear somewhere on the site, a plain language summary ought to have been included in a side bar.

Otherwise, who is this site for?

In its current form, the most this kind of Web site can do is give someone with heart problems a case of agina. Sure, there are Americans who can parse out the meaning of the Plavix paragraph, but how many?

As I see it, thoughtless reliance on statistics has kept pharma marketers from using their own eyes and ears. I mean, if so many Americans understood complex medical concepts, “ObamaCare” would have passed without a whisper. I doubt anyone comfortable with the science behind NSTEMI would have bought all that despicable nonsense about “death panels.” Fact is, and the evidence is everywhere, science literacy in this country is sinking like a stone.

Pointing dollars in a better direction.
So I ask again, and as someone caught up in this very marketing vortex: Who is the consumer-pharma-advertising sector talking to?

If this is the only way drug companies know to talk to consumers, I can’t help wondering if the money invested in pharma marketing is, after all, a waste. Far better to focus those dollars on humanitarian efforts around the world and let the results speak for themselves about the integrity and value of each pharma brand.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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