Richard Pellegrino's 'Translational Entertainment' Projects

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Branded entertainment has worked for just about every marketing vehicle out there, except for one notable omission. The time and place just hasn't been right for pharmaceutical companies to incorporate prescription medications and direct-to-consumer advertising -- branded or unbranded -- into entertainment.
Richard Pellegrino has launched the multimedia company Patient Inspired Communications to offer DTC production placement services to pharmaceutical companies.

Until now.

Richard Pellegrino, an Arkansas physician, has come up with some novel concepts to weave DTC into new outlets.

'Translational entertainment'

Patient Inspired Communications is the good doctor's multimedia company, which provides pharmaceutical marketers with a niche marketing alternative to network DTC. The company works in the field of “translational entertainment,” a general term coined by Dr. Pellegrino to describe the translation of the unique experiences of a particular grouping of people into entertainment vehicles, such as novels, movies and live shows, in order to provide an effective media voice for that group.

In medicine, movies such as the drama Lorenzo's Oil and the Bruce Willis thriller Mercury Rising have used forms of translational entertainment to provide a media voice for patients, weaving stories around accurate characters stricken with adrenoleukodystrophy and autism, respectively. These stories were compelling, but merely telling a story is of limited use to pharmaceutical marketers.

Dr. Pellegrino's challenge was to take the tried-and-true principles of medically focused translational entertainment and create a methodology for producing quality fictional and nonfictional pieces that provide a patient-focused, unbranded context for branded pharmaceutical messages.

Novel and documentary film

Thus was born Point Source, a novel Dr. Pellegrino wrote in which the main character suffers from multiple sclerosis, or MS. He has also done a documentary film, Taking Back the Future: Living With MS. The film features profiles of several of Pellegrino's patients, including a horsewoman who continues to ride on a specially made saddle, though her disease is making it increasingly difficult for her to walk.

"The challenge to marketers is to integrate these disease-oriented messages with branded messages," Dr. Pellegrino said. "This is the future of DTC advertising, to put it in an educational context."

DTC advertising has been under intense scrutiny in the past year from the public and from Congress and the Food and Drug Administration. Politicians and opponents of DTC are calling for moratoriums on advertising -- if not an entire ban on the $4 billion industry -- while drug makers are trying to appease all sides with new guidelines on how to advertise.

Disease-awareness advertising

More unbranded ads, or disease-awareness advertising, is one of the goals of the pharmaceutical companies.

Though Dr. Pellegrino's efforts have mostly been grass roots, bringing the documentary as well as a live stage show to various outlets, he has caught the attention of at least one pharma company in Teva, which had underwritten part of his work.

"Teva has been supportive of the project from the beginning," Dr. Pellegrino said.

The book, Point Source, began to form in 2002, when he took 20 of his patients out to lunch and asked them to be a part of it.

"I told them I wanted to reflect what they were going through, but I didn't know how," he said. "So I asked them to write me letters about whatever illustrated their life, and I asked them ask other MS patients to do the same."

MS victims

Dr. Pellegrino received letters from patients in all 50 states and six countries. The documentary was an extension of the novel. Where the book was a fictional thriller, the documentary takes a hard look at life with MS. The story about the horsewoman is inspiring, to be sure, but the film also looks at a young woman who suffers from the disease who is left by her husband, who then seeks custody of their children. Vignettes also center on a Navy veteran who suffers from depression because he can no longer bathe himself, and a welder who can't apply his trade because heat triggers his MS episodes.

At the end of the documentary, the actual letters that were written to Dr. Pellegrino are read by celebrities such as Joe Pesci, Dennis Farina, Frankie Avalon, Frankie Valli, soap star Jaclyn Zeman, Joe Mantegna, former football star-turned-actor Ed Marinaro and Helen Gurley Brown.

Dr. Pellegrino also has a Web site, www.patientinspiredcommunications.com.

Next up? Turning Point Source into a screenplay, and writing more novels that incorporate other diseases that will draw more awareness.

"What I have here is an advocacy project that works well for patients and helps patients, but what I'm trying to do is place this in a business framework to make it sustainable," Dr. Pellegrino said, adding that he hopes more pharmaceutical companies will come on board with financial backing.

"If I can make this useful to pharmaceutical marketers, it becomes sustainable,” he said. “My career path is to provide this translational entertainment to different illnesses."
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