Pharma TV Ads Should Die A Quick Death

Unlike consumer goods branding, healthcare branding is not a celebration of self. People don’t engage with healthcare brands to shape their identity. “Look, I got a new Dior bag…a new BMW…a cool brand of beer!” Healthcare branding is a protection of self, helping to restore aspects of one’s identity lost to illness. 

Such compromising illnesses and their remedies are poorly served by TV ads due to the very nature of the medium, which compels medicines to behave like soft drinks or smartphones, compromising the healthcare brand’s identity. TV ads for pharma brands should die a quick, painless death for several reasons.

First, TV is foremost an entertainment medium. Viewers are naturally tuned in to laugh or cry over a host of subjects featured in sitcoms, sporting events, movies or dramas. When people watch TV, they don’t wish to be educated much less reminded of all the ills facing them in the world. Even TV news is geared toward the flamboyant presentation of information, with slick, handsome anchors vying to keep you glued to the screen.  



The fact of the matter is that sickness isn’t entertaining, and that the remedies for illness are even less alluring. However, bowing to the need for upbeat performances on TV, pharma ads try hard to put on a show with disastrous results. We are expected to believe that those who suffer illnesses are being held back not from the reality of jobs and family obligations, but rather from landscape painting on the beach, flying kites or playing a round of golf while discussing deep vein thrombosis.

But the primary means of “medi-tainment” usually features a whimsical character designed to grab our attention and present the illness in a branded, less disgusting way in the hopes that viewers can relate and not rush out of the room for a quick bio break. We have the green Mr. Mucus courtesy of Mucinex; or the newt-like Digger the Dermatophyte harassing toenail fungus creature on behalf of Lamisil, to name just two. 

Mucinex and Lamisil are very good drugs. We should admire and respect these brands because of all the good they do in ridding us of their respective illness targets. However, the TV medium compels them to dress up like fools, and ends up trivializing the drugs’ serious, heroic brand identities and strains credibility.

Second, half a minute or even a minute is not enough time to present any kind of meaningful story about a pharma brand on TV. We are left with ridiculous pleas to ask your doctor if a cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4)-blocking antibody is right for your urothelial carcinoma. Huh?

Lastly, drug brand identities must appeal to the doctor as well because the regulated transaction model in healthcare cannot promote a drug purchase by the end user, but rather should promote a dialogue between doctor and patient. TV ads that whisper in patients’ ears behind a doctor’s back only antagonize the relationship. 

Instead of having a serious dialogue about diagnosis and treatment, healthcare professionals are forced to spend an unwanted amount of time un-doing the damage caused by TV ads that fail to paint an accurate picture of the drug’s complex risks and benefits.

The pharma industry does more good for human kind than any other for-profit business. However, such laughable and unhelpful TV ads only contribute further to the pejorative perceptions the public holds about unreasonably hawking products that people don’t want, but rather need, and in an exorbitantly expensive medium to boot. 

RIP, TV drug ads. May you rest in print or on line where the media are more suited to your brands’ very respectable identities.

15 comments about "Pharma TV Ads Should Die A Quick Death".
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  1. Tim Rank from blueprint 314, December 15, 2017 at 1:26 p.m.

    "When people watch TV, they don’t wish to be educated much less reminded of all the ills facing them in the world."

    While many of your points are well-taken, it's fortunate that you don't speak for everyone. Maybe you don't wish to be educated while watching television, but many do.

  2. Eric Fischer from HJA Strategic Consulting, December 15, 2017 at 1:46 p.m.

    We can argue the entertainment value of the ads themselves, but in lieu of TV advertising, how is it suggest teh company reaches a large segment of the drug's potential audience to let them know something exists?  To this day, only TV has that ability.

  3. Vincent Parry from Parry Branding Company replied, December 15, 2017 at 2:15 p.m.

    Don't know if you work in the healhcare industry, but many studies have shown that educational ads about healthcare get very little interest from the great majority of people. These ads are extremely expensive, and the per capita investment does not yield very good returns.  I was speaking about the majority, not everyone.  Thanks for your comment.

  4. Vincent Parry from Parry Branding Company replied, December 15, 2017 at 2:22 p.m.

    Eric, agree that nothing reaches the masses better than...TV mass media.  Two points: 1. I would suggest changing the narrative of the ads so it builds awareness without sacrificing dignity and brand identity; 2. Many of these drugs are for illnesses that have very small patient populations, populations that can be reached more efficiently via direct marketing.  Pharma ads as they exist now should die a quick death.  I wasn't implying that there's no room for improvement.  Thanks for your comment.

  5. Linda Moskal from WNPV Radio, December 15, 2017 at 3:06 p.m.

    Plus, all the money spent on these revolting ads increases the cost of the drugs to the point where they are all but unaffordable!

  6. Vincent Parry from Parry Branding Company replied, December 15, 2017 at 3:15 p.m.

    We agree that here are many factors contributing to the high costs of healthcare in the US, and perhaps expensive TV is one of them.  But more often than not, the choice of who gets such drugs are not the patients themselves, but rather the doctors who prescribe them. Pharma companies ulltimately want to be "pro choice" in offering drug alternatives.  Patients don't have to choose expensive drugs if their doctors don't feel that it's right for them. And if doctors DO decide to Rx them, then they must feel that patients' are getting their money's worth. As one ad for Opdivo says, what would you do to get a chance to live longer? Value is in the eye of the beholder, and beholders should have choices.

  7. Ron Stitt from Digitec Global Advisors, December 15, 2017 at 4:02 p.m.

    Interesting perspective and creative critique.  I imagine the actual pharma advertisers though are acting more empirically.  They know TV works, in this instance it's not about branding, it's about awareness.  Healthcare consumer awareness of options.  Sure doctors might prefer not to get questions about treatment options, but if ads provoke discussions and engage/empower patients, that's on balance, a good thing.  BTW, I hate those pharma ads too.

  8. Vincent Parry from Parry Branding Company, December 15, 2017 at 4:15 p.m.

    Ron, thanks for your thoughtful comments. And we agree that pharma ads promote a "pro choice" environment intended to engender discussions on the relative merits of one therapy vs. another, or the risks vs. the benefits.  But I do believe the ads, in many cases, go well beyond awareness and try to build identities that entertain rather than inform, and that's like dressing up a lovely serious person in clown clothes. I'm a fan of these brands, but hate to see them pander. I think there's vast room for improvement.  However, clients won't change the pattern until another one acts as a guinea pig and goes for something truly innovative.

  9. Frank Hone from Healthcentric Partners, Inc., December 15, 2017 at 5:12 p.m.

    Having spent 15+ years in the early days of DTC advertising (when print was king), I agree that using TV for brand messages is largely ineffective and generally confusing.  Before 1997, when the FDA first allowed branded messages on TV, there were better messaging options. Non-branded disease awareness ads and DRTV spots were used to support strategically integrated consumer communications campaigns.  But marketers saw nirvana with Branded TV and never looked back.  

  10. Vincent Parry from Parry Branding Company replied, December 15, 2017 at 5:23 p.m.

    Spoken like a true veteran, Frank. Healthcare marketers are blinded by the glitter of TV, and blind to the fact that other media are vastly more cost effective. Plus, as my central thesis states, TV ads the way they are executed make great brands look foolish.  There is a better way if only they'd come to their sense and try something different.

  11. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 16, 2017 at 9:07 a.m.

    Take a pill. It cures everything mentality. Although it is supposed to be directed to addict adults, it sucks in kids, too. Take a pill and you don't have to worry about your homework and it goes from there. Have a problem at home ? Easy cure at one of those facilitlites (at a minimum of $20,000- $100,000 month). Only people who go to those places get help. In other words, the ads skew perceptions of what pharmaceuticals can do like magic on demand and disappointing when they don't work as well for you and not on the turn on a dime. They can hurt a patient. They induce children to get addicted to the pill mentality. The same goes for your dog or kitty (through you). Pied Pipers.

  12. Jon Currie from Currie Communications, Inc., December 18, 2017 at 2:01 p.m.

    Viewers may not want to be "educated" when they watvh TV news, but the crux of TV news is to be informed. It's a big stretch to go from "no desire to be educated to only wanting to be entertained.

  13. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 18, 2017 at 4:07 p.m.

    Agreed, Tim. Moreover, TV, especially TV news---but also game shows, talk shows and other grenres attract very heavy amounts of older viewers who are the prime prospects for most of these ad campaigns----and these eyeballs can be " bought" at very low cost. Why should pharma advertisers take their ads somewhere else----like digital, perhaps, where they would sacrifice hugely in reach? Why not apply the same approach to other kinds of product categories with unpleasant connotations----detergents, toilet paper, reverse mortgages, etc. Since when is it the advertiser's job to present only "fun" commercials? If viewers don't like commercials they can ignore them. Obviously the pharma advertisers who have used TV for decades seepositive  results from their campaigns---even if some elitists who watch cable news don't like it.

  14. Vincent Parry from Parry Branding Company replied, December 18, 2017 at 4:40 p.m.

    The results of the effects of TV advertising are far from obvious. Historically, healthcare marketers are not very innovative.  They just do what everyone else is doing without really stretching for something else beyond the status quo.  Since their audience cannot make a direct purchase, but rather must convince a physician to Rx the drug AND get permission from insurance formularies, it's impossible to gauge the per capita return on investment.  But my main thesis is that drug companies are making fools of their brands and ruining their reptuations as serious medicines by fielding TV ads that compel them to behave like consumer goods brands.  The only ones laughing all the way to the bank are the consumer agencies who have a vested interest in maintaining this pathetic and poorly vetted dynamic.

  15. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 18, 2017 at 6:01 p.m.

    I'm not sure I get why the pharmas cant evaluate the ROI of their advertising---meaning TV advertising, one presumes.Most of them pretest their commercials and monitor  awareness and sales results, which can be correlated with TV spending and/or GRPs as a campaign develops. I've had the dubious pleasure of working with several such companies and, while they are not scientific wiz kids---like P&G----they aren't shooting in the dark and/or being sold down the river by greedy ad agencies who put them into TV so they, the agencies, can make money. If a TV campaign doesn't work according to plan, it's the agency's neck, just as it would be if a print media or digital effort didn't produce the desired result.

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