Halloween Already? Big Pharma Marketers Try Terror Tactics to Scare Up Sales

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Grandma is a wolf in an ad for a whooping cough vaccine.
Grandma is a wolf in an ad for a whooping cough vaccine. Credit: iSpot

Grandma as a menacing wolf. Parents whose carelessness leads to cancer in their kids. A teenager hospitalized after sharing a seemingly innocent kiss. Halloween may still be over a month away, but Big Pharma is already out to scare consumers.

In recent months, several fear-instilling, often ominous commercials for medical devices, products and vaccines from drugmakers including Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Mylan are airing in fairly heavy rotation. In GSK's spot for whooping cough vaccine Boostrix, a sick grandmother is portrayed as a wolf holding a human infant. In Pfizer's ad for Trumenba, a meningitis B vaccine, scenes in reverse order show how a boy celebrating at a birthday party ended up prone and pale in a hospital bed after his mom mistakenly thought he just had the flu.

"If you increase an individual's feeling that they're susceptible to a threat, and increase the perceived severity of that threat, people are more likely to take action," said Adrienne Faerber, a lecturer at the Dartmouth Institute. "What are these advertisements but trying to get people to take action on things they probably aren't thinking about."

Then there's Mylan's EpiPen. In an unsettling commercial for the auto-injector, a young partygoer suffers an extreme anaphylactic reaction, terrifying those around her. Mylan, of course, has come under fire for gouging after pushing up the price of an EpiPen two-pack by more than 550% to $600 since 2007. And that, said John Mack, who runs electronic newsletter Pharma Marketing News, is no coincidence. He said that "a trend with companies, especially ones with injectable drugs and vaccines, which also have big price increases, is to scare people into buying their product or getting their vaccine."

It seems that as product prices increase, so does industry spending on advertising. Last year, prescription drug companies spent $5.8 billion on measured media in the U.S., a 23% increase over 2014, according to Ad Age's Datacenter. That's more than the insurance category, which spent $5.2 billion.

Many of pharma's ads target aging baby boomers, who represent a substantial bulk of healthcare's customer base, and prey on their fear, for example, of not being able to spend quality time with their grandchildren.

"Baby boomers are almost 80 million strong, but are getting to the point where the population can only live so long—the run for the healthcare industry is going to start waning, so [drugmakers are] taking advantage," said Bethany Bayer, VP-group director of strategy for the Boston healthcare strategy practice of Digitas. But she cautioned that she tells her clients to take a more humane approach in their marketing. "No patient wants to think of themselves that way."

Fearmongering was not always the go-to strategy. In the years following the Food and Drug Administration's late-'90s relaxation of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising on TV, medical ads were often more cheerful, upbeat and positive, experts said. But recent years have seen a darker turn as product prices have risen and consumers have become more cynical of profiteering brands.

"This has been a gradual evolution," said George Sillup, chair and associate professor of pharmaceutical and healthcare marketing at Saint Joseph's University. "If we looked at ads over the last year compared with ads three to five years ago, they used to be more scientific—now they're about convince and persuade."

To avoid having to dedicate valuable screen time to side effects to comply with FDA regulations, many brands have omitted product names from their ads. Mylan's EpiPen spot doesn't reference the device itself, but instead directs consumers to an informational website. Dartmouth's Ms. Faerber noted that the strategy could appeal to brands that have the market cornered on products. EpiPen is one of only two such products for anaphylactic shock and is considered the better alternative, for example.

"It's a way to build market share through making people more aware of a disease rather than promoting the product itself," said Ms. Faerber.

Some drug companies say that boldness is necessary to get their points across and to educate consumers. Merck is running a commercial for HPV vaccine Gardasil in which children ask their parents if they knew they were at risk of getting cancer. "This campaign is designed to help parents become aware of the potential risk of HPV-related cancers for their children later in life," said a spokeswoman at Merck. She cited a recent internal study in which many parents were unaware of the link between HPV and certain cancers.

Similarly, a GSK spokeswoman said its wolf ad helped to motivate consumers.

"This campaign tested well among grandparents and motivated them to talk to their healthcare provider about vaccination," she said, noting that more traditional imagery was not as memorable. She said the wolf in the ad is symbolic of hidden dangers, like in "Little Red Riding Hood," and that the company did not use real wolves, but computer-generated imagery.

Yet even if a campaign is effective at grabbing attention and triggering action, experts caution that fear appeal will only work up to a point. Tim Hawkey, managing director and exec creative director at Area 23, an FCB Health company, noted that previous antismoking ads aimed at teenagers failed with their use of scare tactics. Consumers simply couldn't process that they could be personally susceptible to the risk. Mr. Hawkey said that brands need to make sure they don't cross a line into too extreme territory, showing a tombstone rather than a hospital bed, for instance.

"Fear can be motivating until it's demotivating," he said. "There's a threshold at which we turn off and say, 'That's not me, that's someone else—my brain can't handle this level of risk and information.'"

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