Posts Tagged ‘pharmaceutical advertising


Pharma Advertising and the Talisman of Doom

Despite years of experience in the real world of stringent regulations, many pharma brand managers still believe their mission is to push the boundary of the permissible in an effort to promote a doubtful claim. So begins an exhausting round of creation and revision in which language is tortured and communication is reduced to a string of factoids.

As any rational person could foresee, it’s all for naught. The medical, legal and regulatory departments of even the tiniest pharmaceutical companies know their mandate: to ensure the FDA doesn’t send them a warning letter. The result is overreaction, leading to the stiff, stilted and stagnant prose we now accept as the norm in pharma advertising.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If marketing, medical, regulatory and legal teams met with their advertising agency on at least a quarterly basis, it would take nothing more than honest work to find a viable solution to any marketing problem.

A marketer who feels market share is slipping could discuss ways to cast their brand in the most favorable light. Trouble is, this would mean moving away from the “pre-approved copy,” brand managers cling to like a mystical talisman. Like such a talisman, this pre-approved copy is incomprehensible to its supplicants. It is simply understood to work. The result is a process that values consistency over contextual sense, and demands that every single communication contain exactly the same magic words—regardless of its intended purpose.

But the first step in making pharma advertising actually motivate its many audiences is to kick this addiction to all types of mechanical thinking.

Breaking the obsessive cycle.
The antidote to this toxic behavior is a multistep process. It begins with a frank discussion of the problems implicit in marketing to consumers or the healthcare community. Instead of charging ahead with a bold statement that will never get past the lawyers, brand managers must build a consensus with medical, legal, regulatory and agency creatives about what can and can’t be said about the product in different contexts for different purposes.

This is important, because a creative team can only motivate an audience to action if it works within a coherent messaging strategy. In the absence of such a strategy, it’s common practice for an agency to create a stab-in-the-dark positioning, only to have it arbitrarily eroded over a period of months—until it becomes meaningless.

That’s how we end up with headlines that promote “stepping in the right direction,” accompanied by the image of a pair of sneakers—not for a drug, mind you, that treats topographical disorientation. Somewhere, buried beneath this landslide of silliness is the thought that there are steps one can take to control the condition in question.

As if every other conceivable medication for every other conceivable condition doesn’t start from the premise that it exists to take your health in the right direction.

Clear, declarative and actually true.
But the dreary process leading to ineffective messaging is completely unnecessary. Instead of winnowing down unsupported claims until you settle on something that’s inoffensive, why not start with a powerful affirmation of what you can say under the law?

As I see it, the origin of the status quo lies in the misapprehension that marketing and advertising are fundamentally about coming up with something “poppy,” “strong,” or “catchy.” The memorable ads from the deep past that had those attributes succeeded for only one reason: They were grounded in an underlying thought process that changed the way people thought about the entire product category.

Now, I’m the first to say this is stacking the deck. By law, the FDA cannot allow pharmaceutical companies to communicate the way Volkswagen used to. But the underlying idea—i.e., of having an underlying idea—is something pharmaceutical brand managers can emulate. Not by puffing up their product with not-so-subtle innuendo, but by translating the concrete concerns of their audiences into clear, declarative statements.

Changing this tried and true process requires a radical shift—away from anxiety and authoritarianism toward a collaborative approach that acknowledges and respects the expertise of others. I’ve seen for myself the miraculous change that comes over a “stubborn” regulator once someone bothers to hear them out. The change was so pronounced, I can only equate it to a religious conversion in which everyone in the room who was blind was finally able to see. To see, that is, that great advertising in any field arises from a balance of multiple points of view.


The Content Conundrum in Consumer-facing Pharma

Even with appropriately targeted content, one question remains: How do you anticipate what your audience will decide is worth viewing, hearing or reading? While a precise answer is sure to remain elusive, it’s clear to me that the message-starved laundry list of factoids that shape most consumer-facing pharmaceutical Web sites offers us a model of what not to do.

Keeping in mind the rigorous and, at times, arbitrary constraints under which all pharmaceutical advertising is conducted, I’m still convinced we can do better.

As always, the place to start in evaluating your content strategy is with the consumer’s mindset. In this case, we’re talking about people whose diagnosis will have a major impact on their lives. So, the more devastating the news, the less you can expect a consumer to browse through 40 pages of Web copy, diagrams and expert testimony.

Seen from that perspective, much of the content on consumer-facing pharma sites is more than superfluous. It actually works against the business goals of the brand. For if there’s any sense at all to marketing drugs to people who can’t buy them without a prescription, it’s to get consumers to do one of two things:

  • Comply with their doctor’s treatment regimen (that is, take the drug in question)
  • Ask their doctor to prescribe the drug in question for their condition

If I dare state the obvious, it’s only because there’s very little in the content strategy of the average consumer-facing pharma site that contributes to either of those goals.

Part of the problem stems from the desire to create a site accessible to everyone—regardless of their education level or familiarity with the scientific principles underlying medical jargon. The result is a site overflowing with data intended to orient the disoriented to the bad news they’ve received from their doctors. Such sites typically include a superficial tour of the disease state, an overview of the what, how, where and why of their condition.

Understanding undermined.
Trouble is, as redacted by lawyers and resected by medical editors, this text quickly dissolves into a slurry of medical terms that merely creates the illusion of understanding. It’s a dreary, affectless exercise, pitched at a Mr. Wizard level of assumed knowledge—except, that is, when a product claim turns on the mention of a highly technical issue.

So it is that a site that feels the need to explain the phrase “immune system,” a topic fit for 6th-graders, may think nothing of throwing around vocabulary busters like “erythropoiesis,” or “immunomodulatory.”

Regardless of whether a glossary is included, anyone lacking a 6th-grader’s understanding of the immune system is too deficient in science education, as are a large number of Americans, to learn anything from a dumbed-down article about, say, the mechanism of leukemia.

Why? Not for lack of intelligence, but because the number of new concepts introduced by such articles is unreasonably high; even if your readers know the “meaning” of each word, they’re unlikely to grasp what the copy actually means. So, after reading at most a paragraph of your branded communications about Drug X, your target audience will have no choice but to fall back on what it already knows:

Doc says I’m sick and I gotta take some medicine, or else.

That’s because most people confronted with a complex medical issue are only prepared to deal with it on a practical level. Whether the disease affects blood, bone or brain, their main concern is how their diagnosis impacts everyday concerns. Will they be able to work, they wonder, should they go on disability, will they have to remodel their homes or make other accommodations to adapt? And what, by the way, should they tell their families?

As I see it, if the goal of digital pharma advertising is to create an aura of trust and a motivating sense that “the brand cares about me,” addressing these concerns upfront is more to the point than nattering on about B-cells, T-cells or tumor necrosis factor. And yet natter on, we do.

It’s this lack of understanding of the human condition that drives many-a brand to address its audience in such a stilted, condescending tone. “It’s normal to be worried,” you can read on countless Web pages. Maybe, but what’s not normal is talking to people as if they were an uncanny mix of jaded doctoral candidate and bright-eyed 9-year-old—a demographic abstraction with no basis in reality.

Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY



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