Ilana Becker can barely go a day without someone asking her, "'You're the girl with the stomach, right?' "
Many actors are known for their signature roles. In Ms. Becker's case, that role is of a dysfunctional digestive system. She plays Irritabelle, that adorably annoying redhead in tights in Arnold Worldwide's campaign for Allergan's Viberzi, a prescription drug to treat IBS-D, or irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea.
"I've been blown away by the response" to the ad, said Ms. Becker, who was once followed in an airport from baggage claim to the exit by someone who recognized her. "It's just thrilling that the ads are resonating like that with strangers," Ms. Becker said. "Irritabelle has been a real gift. She sort of sprinkled her fairy dust on me in terms of helping me embrace what makes me uniquely me. She's me, but with the volume turned up."
In the cottage industry of voice and commercial actors who play diseases and afflicted citizens in healthcare and pharma ads, there are a host of actors who welcome the chance to embrace the quirkiness.
Take, for example, Roger L. Jackson, the voice of Mr. Mucus. Mr. Jackson originated the voice and personality of the wiseguy ball of phlegm back in 2004, when the ads were handled in-house by then-owner Adams Respiratory Therapeutics, which later sold to RB. Mr. Jackson, who also voiced Ghostface in the "Scream" movies and the evil Mojo Jojo in "The Powerpuff Girls," played Mr. Mucus for 10 years before a new ad agency revamped the character and displaced him.
"Basically he's a loogie," Mr. Jackson said. "They wanted him to have a New Yorky attitude and sound. Have you ever seen 'Guys and Dolls'? He's B.S. Pully, the guy who plays Big Jule from Chicago," he added, explaining his inspiration for Mr. Mucus' voice.
Mr. Jackson's agent, Sandie Schnarr at AVO Talent, added, "When you think about what it is—Mr. Mucus—it's surprising, but it worked. Roger just brought the exact right personality to it."
The new Mr. Mucus with attitude is housed at McCann New York and voiced by comedian and "Silicon Valley" actor T.J. Miller. His Mr. Mucus is more sardonic hipster than tough-guy gangster, reading "sick tweets" or asking a restaurant patron "Is that a bisque?"
Also happy to talk openly in ads about what some might consider embarrassing is actress Mariette Booth, the period mom from the online viral hit "First Moon Party." She self-submitted for the part online in hopes of snagging the role of a witty mom for a menstrual product. Period-kit maker HelloFlo partnered with Procter & Gamble to create the humorous send-up in which Ms. Booth plays a mom who punks her teen daughter by throwing her a period party—complete with "vagician"—when the young girl pretends to get her period to be "in" with her friends.
"At the time, I had a temp job, and when the video came out, I was out with friends at an outdoor bar and people were coming up to me and telling me how funny it was, and I just remember thinking, 'Oh my God, my work doesn't know I filmed this,' " Ms. Booth said. "I knew it was blowing up when my boyfriend got a text from a friend that said, 'Is your girlfriend the period mom?' "
Shortly after "First Moon Party," which was handled independently by writer-directors Jamie McCelland and Pete Marquis, she was able to quit her job and focus solely on acting. The gig, she said, "helped put me on the radar."
The pharma industry spent $5.6 billion on paid media in 2015, according to Kantar Media. And while it's not the top-spending industry—that would be categories like consumer packaged goods, telecom and automotive—pharma does spend disproportionately on TV advertising. Estimates put pharma TV spending at 60% to 70% of its total outlay.
The industry relies heavily on TV and print because regulations and restrictions require disclaimers for prescription drugs that are tough to convey in digital and social media. But TV is also where the category can find its target audience. Older audiences, comprised of people more likely to take prescription drugs, still spend more time watching TV and reading magazines than younger generations.
Paul Guyet, who's been doing voice-over work since 2003, is a pharmaceutical commercial veteran. He's the current voice for Boehringer Ingelheim's heartburn medicine character Captain Zantac, created by independent agency Jomo and animators Aardman Animations, and was also one of the talking grocery store fish in AstraZeneca's "Take It From a Fish" digital video campaign that won a Cannes Grand Prix for the pharma category for Digitas LBi in 2015. He's also done voice work for Novo Nordisk diabetes drugs Levemir and Tresiba.
In "Take It From a Fish," Mr. Guyet's piscine character, Sal, who is lying in a bed of ice in a grocery store case with his pal Marty, says that Martin Scorsese called him and wants him to be in his next film. Marty says, "Really, when's that filming?" Sal says in six months. Marty deadpans, "Yeah, don't think you're gonna be available."
These gigs may not be Shakespeare, but they pay the bills and give actors notoriety—and a bit of fun. After all, it's not everyone who can play toe fungus.
Ms. Becker, who also does personal appearances at gastroenterology conferences for Allergan, said, "GI doctors are the best, they have such a great sense of humor. If someone watching is less embarrassed and more encouraged to live out loud, that makes me feel great."
Beth Snyder Bulik writes about drug marketing for FiercePharma.