The impact of Viagra’s most recent DTC campaign has brand managers talking about the “humanity” of their communications.


It is sometimes easy to forget that the audience at the other end of pharmaceutical brands’ direct to consumer communications consists of ordinary humans. For all the new technologies and channels at hand today, brand managers are still presented with the same basic challenge they faced in 1997: manipulating narrow efficacy claims and “fair balance” information into something that can be understood by –and appeal to – the man on the street.

Thus humanity. Some of the most successful DTC campaigns of the recent past were those that used emotional appeals –common in the consumer product world, no so much in pharma – to build a connection with their audiences.

The human touch

Perhaps the most visible DTC campaign of the past year came from old reliable Viagra: the attractive middle-aged woman with the cute British accent looking straight into the camera and telling men that there’s nothing wrong with having ED. While that particular spot has generated plenty of parody, from Ellen Degeneres on down, its disruptive impact highlights what has always been a challenge for pharma marketers: bringing a sense of humanity to their messaging. A significant part of what made the Viagra campaign so memorable was that it did what pharma campaigns rarely do by looking the audience straight in the eyes and speaking person-to-person; this degree of human connection in a DTC campaign is rare.

“The Viagra campaign uses the technique of speaking directly to the viewer to great advantage, and I think it does a really good job of ‘socially norming’ the problem of ED,” says Tim Hawkey, executive VP, managing director, Area 23. “There is a pharma ‘look’ to most campaigns that I think it makes it harder for the average viewer to let their guard down that this spot does a nice job of avoiding.”

But making such a connection is no easy task, especially with the legal and regulatory departments looking over one’s shoulder. To do so, pharma marketers must turn away from their natural proclivity to trumpet the differentiating characteristics and benefits of their brands for a moment and dig in to the emotional needs of their audience.

“We have to start with the human problem,” says Marty Canniff, senior VP, executive creative director, Intouch Solutions. “People are in control. We need to meet them where they are emotionally. What tension needs to be resolved? With that lens, we explore messages and information we can share, and rewarding experiences we can create, that connect with our audience and solve their problem.”

This is the case, Canniff believes, because advertising in the traditional sense is no longer enough for a digital-age audience. “Expectations have evolved beyond ‘advertising’ to a large degree due to access of information of any kind at any time. People must believe in your brand in order to consider it.”

But if a human connection is to be the measure of success for DTC campaigns, so far the industry appears to be doing a very poor job of achieving it, or so many agency executives believe. “Much of what I see on television actually has very little humanity, because commercials are not built on human insights,” says Rich Levy, chief creative officer, FCB Health. “They’re stuck in the functional benefits of the product and don’t aspire to connect with patients as people. The reason (in my opinion) the ‘Spiriva Elephant’ campaign was so successful is that within the first six seconds people heard someone say, ‘If you have COPD, you know what that feels like,’ and you see the elephant sitting on someone’s chest. Consumers immediately said, ‘Yes, that’s how I feel,’ and spoke to their doctors. It wasn’t judgmental. It wasn’t functional. It was emotional, and it worked.”

Levy’s current favorite work on the humanity scale is the “I am” campaign for the Alzheimer’s drug Namenda XR – another campaign that is unafraid to appeal to emotion – because he believes it understands the role of the caregiver in treating someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The campaign recognizes how hard it is to be their advocate, their ally, and their rock,” Levy says. “What I also love is how all the communications in every channel work together to provide tools and information created especially for caregivers.”

Mary Brown, senior VP, managing director, Ogilvy CommonHealth Wellness Marketing, emphasizes that pharma brand marketers should not use their regulatory restraints as an excuse to leave emotion out of their communications. “That human connection is so important, and sometimes overshadowed by necessary legal and fair balance information,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek a visceral reaction from our audiences … we shouldn’t be afraid to tap into an emotion … good or bad.”

At the same time, the appeal to emotion walks a fine line. “We also have to be careful not to be so overt in translating insights to our messaging and visuals,” Brown says. “Insights are so critical to making that human connection … but if they are so forced or so obvious, we’ve missed the opportunity for connection and have quite possibly alienated our target.”

Of course, not everyone feels the Viagra campaign’s human connection was so revolutionary. And not every pharma brand can use sex as part of its communications.

“I disagree that there’s a lack of a real human connection in pharma brand marketing,” Hawkey says. “Effective DTC campaigns are based on years of insight mining, and if you dissect any of the spots airing today, you will probably find a gem of a human insight within them. On the flip side, it’s really no surprise to me that men of a certain age would respond very well to a series of abnormally attractive women with throaty voices, staring into their eyes and talking to them about erections.”

Digital decline?

One of the more surprising recent developments in the world of pharma DTC was the release of Kantar Media’s spend report back in March. According to the folks at Kantar, DTC spend on television rose a surprising 27 percent in 2014, while internet DTC spend actually dropped by 4 percent. While the introduction of a number of broad-market products may explain the first result, the second was, to put it lightly, a surprise.

“Last year saw some therapies being launched that had extremely large and broad audiences,” Levy says. “Drugs like Sovaldi and Harvoni are trying to reach millions of people who have been warehoused with hep C – broad-reach broadcast television made perfect sense. Also last year, we saw Jublia reach an enormous audience on the Super Bowl. And that made sense for them, as they were the first new treatment for toenail fungus. On the other hand, many clients are doing so many more programs online. Social media. YouTube. Facebook. A downward spend online seems completely counterintuitive.”

Counterintuitive, certainly, but perhaps not to be taken at face value. The consensus among agency leaders seems to be that digital spend remains difficult to measure, especially in the social area – so as brands move from traditional web advertising to more complex social, mobile, and contextual investments, their dollars may be growing less visible to the sorts of analysis that the Kantars of the world are doing.

“If you think about how media is measured, a lot of the social application of internet media is probably not captured, thus ‘internet’ or ‘digital’ as a whole gets under-reported,” Brown says. “I would also be careful of taking the digital investment at its face value. There are budgets shifting to more sponsored content and moving some banner/search budgets to mobile, which is not easily measured. Also, search went up by 83 percent, so the decline is in display banners, which have not shown strong ROI for many brands.”

According to Michael Maher, president of the Interpublic agency ID Health, the rumors of digital’s decline have been greatly exaggerated. “According to Kantar, digital growth is still very healthy, as total digital media spend increased 22.5 percent in 2014 over 2013, without mobile and digital video spend being adequately accounted for,” he says. “Paid search is up a robust 83.7 percent while display decreased 4.9 percent; these numbers don’t adequately reflect the shift from standard display to mobile and video ads.”

New developments

So what else was new in DTC in the past year? Firstly, after years of talk, the importance of social media is finally beginning to sink in among decisionmakers, and branded and unbranded are taking advantage of technology to edge closer together.

“The risk tolerance for social has grown dramatically in the last year, with everyone doing social listening and most putting a toe in the water,” says Jay Carter, senior VP, director of strategy services, AbelsonTaylor. “[Also,] there is a stronger move to get disease awareness communications to be only one click away from branded promotion.”

Levy at FCB Health seconds this view. “More and more, we’re being asked for details on social media: two-way consumer/patient interactions, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram,” he says. “Successful programs created by Novartis for Gilenya and FDA guidance have made many of our clients interested in having a direct conversation with more audiences. We’re also seeing a huge increase in the number of videos created for YouTube. It’s clear that more people are searching online for information – and all forms of social media allow our clients to engage in meaningful conversations with more people than before.”

Another change that Levy has noticed is what he calls the “consumerization” of HCP materials. “Many of our clients are looking for new and innovative ways to educate their HCP audiences,” he says. The same tactics from the past are being moved to the side and more innovative ideas have taken over. We’re always looking for new ways to attack the same old problems. Fresh thinking that worked in consumer advertising is one way. Dreaming up things that have never been done before is another. It’s exciting and has the potential to dramatically change the way we work.”

Not quite as visible on the front end but growing more prominent on the back, the collection and analysis of audience and campaign data has undergone a quiet revolution in the past year.

“Pharma brands are doing a bit more talking than doing when it comes to advanced media strategies today,” says Patrick Richard, executive VP, director of strategy, GSW. “That being said, they are asking more and more about audience retargeting, real time audience segmentation, multi-device media targeting, and a better-connected social strategy to all their tactics. Layered on top of that is that they also have a better understanding of analytics and ROI for a respective media campaign. Campaign results can no longer be looked at in silos. Pharma marketers are definitely getting the fact that looking at media and digital analytics as close to real time as possible will optimize their overall marketing spend. This shows some great progress.”

With all this new analytic muscle available, brands have been able to improve the efficiency of their campaigns while increasing their scale, a combination that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“Most pharma brands are becoming comfortable using first and third party data to identify, isolate and even segment their target audience across multiple media channels, and that allows agencies to efficiently deploy media to an exact audience versus placing media within relevant content or programming,” says Tina Breithaupt, senior media director, Intouch Solutions. “Purchasing online media programmatically through real-time-bidding guarantees increased scale and cost-efficiencies while still running in relevant content with premium placement, which is still important to pharma brands.”

When asked what DTC media approaches are generating the most interest from clients, Maher of ID Health cites three.

“Programmatic media uses rich data to target audiences, not media properties, so brands can more fully understand and more precisely reach their consumer targets wherever they are online,” he says. “Digital video consumption, whether on desktop or mobile, continues to be one of the fastest-growing areas of media, as consumers demonstrate deep immersion and engagement with this type of content. Finally, creating social media discussions, whether recommendations among friends or sharing with people experiencing similar health conditions, has gone from being taboo in pharma to a channel that effectively builds dialogue, authenticity, and trust between brands and their patient targets.”

At Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide, agency leaders are reporting a mixture of interest in the traditional and the cutting-edge from their clients. “We are seeing an interesting mix of DTC strategies,” says Liz O’Neil, senior VP, channel strategy and research. “On the one hand, there is a respect for traditional media such as TV. This channel has proven itself to help build awareness and interest in products as seen in the increased investment in TV. Yet on the other hand, we are also being asked for more ideas around uncharted and innovative channels. Talking to clients about social strategies and native advertising is happening so that they can be where consumers are engaging in health.”

What will the next request be? True ROI measurement is one possibility.

“As more pharma brands are shifting a portion of their media budget to target and purchase media [programmatically], we believe the next mandatory will be more advanced reporting and analytics that go beyond just a media metric,” Breithaupt says. “They will be moving to an approach that will truly validate the media spend and tie back to specific business objectives as the standard. They’ll use data to drive insights and to create the a story on how integrated measurement can inform a more strategic multi-channel approach.”

At the end of the day, though, the pharma brand marketer’s basic task remains the same: telling stories about their brands and delivering those stories at the proper place and time to maximally impact patients.

“The best media strategies and tactics will be the same as they’ve always been: to tell compelling stories that offer information or a demonstration about a product or brand that reward consumers for giving us their time and attention,” says Denise Henry of HealthWork, a joint venture between The CDM Group and BBDO. “And then to deliver that information at the appropriate time and in the appropriate media when consumers would be most receptive to this messaging. Advances in media analytics allow us to have a deeper understanding of where our patients are consuming information. And as we begin to apply predictive modeling to healthcare, we will be able to uncover clear trends in the industry which will allow both our business planning and targeting and communications to be more proactive than ever before. Which is exciting, as it means when you craft the right message and deliver it to the right audience at the right time via the right medium, it will have a strong likelihood to be more effective than ever.”


Fungus Bowl

It’s not every day that we see an ad for a toenail fungus product during the Super Bowl. We asked agency leaders what they thought of Jublia’s “Hail Mary,” and how it might change the playbook for DTC.

“The lifeblood of brands like Jublia (and Viagra, and Cialis, and Ambien CR, ad infinitum) requires patient requests. The Super Bowl ad, and ensuing bad press, certainly made a splash. Analysts suggest that Jublia sales continue to grow. Valeant stock, which one would hope is not driven by Jublia sales alone, grows well. I believe that creating a spot to get buzz is a long-standing part of the Super Bowl playbook (think GoDaddy) and that it’s possible that creating the “least sexy ad … ever” (as written by AOL the day after the big game) was a strategy … but I hope not.”
– Jay Carter, senior VP, director of strategy services,

“Clearly, if you do any social listening about toenail fungus, you’ll see that currently Jublia is owning the conversation. But it’s hard to say if it’s because of the creative or the fact that they’re the only new innovation in years. According to the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter, the Jublia spot ranked 61st out of 62 spots during the game. If we’re going to compete with viewer’s share-of-voice in that arena, we’ll have to do work that better captures consumer imagination. Will we see more healthcare brands on the Super Bowl? Only if we create campaigns that are interesting enough to be on the Super Bowl.”
– Rich Levy, chief creative officer,
FCB Health

“Highly visible ad placement for pharma is nothing new. While not all watchers were happy to see it, it’s not surprising that a blockbuster drug with a huge, general demographic advertised during the Super Bowl. As we often see in digital, the ad was customized for the placement and spoke directly to the audience they were trying to reach. Drugs are changing and target audiences are becoming smaller and more refined. Advertisers need to consider targeting television ads using the same data-driven strategies that are used in digital.”
– Jill Groebl, senior VP, client services,
Intouch Solutions

“There have been brands that have used this high-profile buy to not just introduce a product but also to get people talking about it. Levitra did so years ago with their football/tire spot, and now Jublia is using the metaphor of football play strategies to talk about how a new topical works. It was bold and obviously quite expensive, but here we are still talking about it. Finding a way to get a product being talked about is exactly what brands want. Social listening allows us to capture that noise and put a value to it in ways that we could not in the past.”
– Liz O’Neil, senior VP, channel strategy and research,
Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide