Finding Your Way in These Dark Days for DTC Ads

Trouble Looms for Pharmaceutical Marketers, but Creativity Can See You Through

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Mark Drossman
Mark Drossman
In recent days, the results of a study of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising conducted by Harvard Medical School, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research revealed that TV spots and print advertising for the big pharmaceutical brands have little to no effect on consumer behavior.

And just a couple of weeks ago, Nielsen IAG ranked the best-remembered prescription-drug ads of the past year. The numbers showed that these ads were far less memorable than those of previous years.

Of course, you don't need a Nielsen study to know that most pharmaceutical advertising today is blander than an Osmond Family Christmas special. It's no wonder that consumers aren't being motivated by it.
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Our industry has entered an era that we at our agency call "Pharmageddon."

Unprecedented scrutiny by the FDA, Congress and others is causing agencies and marketers alike to raise the white flag before they even take to the battlefield.

But what's the point of spending millions of dollars on so-called creative that is anything but? What kind of ROI can you expect from your advertising if it leaves no impact?

Pharmaceutical companies, here's how you and your agencies can bring to a halt the dark cloud of "Pharmageddon."

1. Make friends with your legal/medical people. Bring them into your projects as early as possible. Give them a sense of ownership. Give them candy. You want to have a relationship with them that goes beyond the black-and-white "yes" and "no." You want them to say, "Well, you can't say it that way, but maybe you could try this ..." A regulatory person at one of our clients found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to speak at a conference on Web 2.0. We helped him get up to speed on the subject. The experience actually turned him into a social-media advocate, and the result was soon reflected in his company's digital work, which became noticeably more robust and unique.
Mark Drossman is exec VP-exec creative director at Glow Worm Consumer Healthcare, an integrated advertising, digital/social media and CRM agency in the Publicis Healthcare Group. You can write to him at [email protected].

2. Learn from other categories. Years ago, when Snapple introduced a mango-flavored beverage, the company did something brilliant: Realizing that mango lovers are passionate about the fruit, they put little stickers on mangoes in supermarket produce sections that said, "Now available in Snapple." Why not think out of the box like that for pharmaceuticals?

3. Dig for insights. A new concept about your drug or the patient can give you an unexpected, unique foundation on which to build. Dove, for example, took a parity product, soap, and created advertising for it that recognized the universal need of women to feel good in their own skin. Now when people think "Dove," they think "skin care for women with high self-esteem."

4. Rethink digital. Obviously, pharmaceutical companies face regulatory hurdles that most other marketers don't have to deal with. But there are industries that face similar barriers. Liquor companies, for example, have perfected the art of limiting usage of their websites to visitors of the appropriate age. Learn from them.

Great creative work can be done for the pharmaceutical business just as it can for any other business. In fact, it should be easier to do for pharma.

After all, what other category has a target so desperate for the product? Patients want to be armed with information to intelligently discuss their problem with their doctor. They want to hear your message. Let them hear it.
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