FORUM: WHY CONSUMER RX DRUG ADS FAIL CREATIVITY TEST: OLD AD FORMULAS MUST GIVE WAY TO NEW APPROACHES MORE TAILORED TO CONSUMER NEEDS

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Too often I hear the same refrain: "Why is consumer advertising of prescription drugs so bad?"

As the fastest-growing category of consumer ad spending-a projected $1 billion in 1997 alone -you might expect to see a lot of innovation and fresh thinking on this new frontier of advertising. Instead, too much of this work is retrofitted medical advertising: uninspired, formulaic, old-fashioned and, at its worst, completely unintelligible.

I have some suspicions about why, and a prescription, if you will, for making the work, and its creators, feel better.

THE FDA EFFECT

While the federal regulatory arena is instrumental in assuring product safety, until recently it was a veritable plague on creativity. Food & Drug Administration guidelines restricted pharmaceutical companies from promoting their drugs' uses and limited information that would aid consumer understanding-ultimately diluting advertising's impact.

Now, FDA restrictions have been relaxed for TV advertising, creating great opportunities for more powerful, brand-building advertising-if direct-to-consumer marketers are prepared to capitalize on these changes. I suggest making the FDA your partner from the beginning to pave the way for positive results and effective communications.

OWN WORST ENEMIES

Most pharmaceutical companies rely on internal committees to review advertising. These committees, while always invaluable to assure legal and regulatory compliance, are often hazardous to creative development. Too often, they are inclined to "play creative," rewriting headlines and tampering with layouts. In a perfect world, the review process should be a healthy partnership between the internal committee, the brand group and the advertising agency, with all parties using consumer research to objectively evaluate ad effectiveness.

CONNECTING WITH CONSUMERS

Noted American psychologist William James said: "Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way." So it is with the new prescription medication communications paradigm.

Pharmaceutical marketers are learning that the tried-and-true ways of communicating with physicians simply do not apply to their patients.

Consumer messages must involve this audience directly, relating to them as well as to their medical conditions. We need to recognize the difference between simply "Ask your doctor" and meaningful communication that captures what the patient believes and feels.

RESEARCH DELIVERS INSIGHT

Successful strategies and the resulting advertising are based on a thorough understanding of the consumer. A good marketer will conduct consumer and healthcare professional focus group research to understand the needs of its audience. This work provides greater understanding of what these consumer targets want or need, and the best ways to reach them effectively.

Consumer research is also a great strategic development tool: From research insights flow objectives, creative strategies and, ultimately, media plans-all of which contribute to an impactful message.

The old chestnut, "The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient," is equally true for medical marketers. Savvy marketers know how to shift paradigms, borrowing ideas from other consumer-product and service categories, such as package goods, or exploring new ways to advertise their brands through emerging media such as the Internet. An agency that brings a solid understanding of the medical product category and expertise in brand building can be the ideal partner for this type of exploration and innovation.

$1.5 BIL BY 2000

By the year 2000, direct-to-consumer prescription ad product spending is expected to exceed $1.5 billion annually, surpassing such traditional big spenders as fast-food and soft-drink marketers. How much of this money will be invested wisely and how much will be thrown away?

My money's on marketers that commit to brand building and understand the growing influence of the consumer in the healthcare category.

Ms. Miller is director of the Consumer Healthcare Group, a unit of Campbell

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