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Creating a classic

Pharma could benefit from emulating the style and thinking behind successful consumer ads to make an impact
Picture this: a couple of happy patients are running on the beach, thrilled to bits. There they are too, waving from the garden; now exultant astride shiny bicycles and, finally, smiling in a mutual clasp before the log fire. Two people, greying and world-weary, who are not yet goners and still enjoying life, because their prescription medicines mean they can.

Pharmaceutical advertising clichés, some say, come in all shapes and sizes, but are based fundamentally on the oldest inference: my life is better because my doctor prescribed me this medicine. In pharma, historically at least, this approach to advertising has been popular and effective. Happy-looking patients (or sad, depending) is tried and trusted. Today, however, most ad agencies say that to grab attention, their work must 'zag where other ads are zigging', vice versa - or even better, they should try to 'zoogy'; be creatively persuasive and brand spankingly different.

But, then, how often does anyone really get down to 'zoogying' with your brand? It's true of course that sunny images of tennis players, middle-aged couples jogging out of dramatic seascapes or sprightly, cheery-looking people doing something banal in the flowerbeds are not just (arguably) pharmaceutical advertising clichés, but popular formulas in any industry. Substitute the drug name and headline with a supermarket brand, a 4x4, a sports shoe, a travel company, a zoo, a garden centre, a company selling orthopaedic beds and, for what they are, these universal ideas become no less compelling. And what's wrong with that?  

For advertising to engage, it has to interrupt our thinking, says Tracey Brader, healthcare consultant at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), adding that clichés and hackneyed ideas are unlikely to be heard over the ambient noise.

According to the IPA, we each receive more than 1,500 commercial messages a day, and yet Coke, Nike, Apple, Nokia, McDonald's, Microsoft, Tesco and Toyota et al all do well to float above the rest. But how true is it of healthcare? Is there anything that pharma can learn from these notable consumer sector achievements? Could it even stand to benefit by emulating the style and thinking behind such powerful consumer campaigns?

There is a perception in some quarters that consumer-type styling is creeping progressively into healthcare advertising, as agencies strive to 'zoogy' and move away from the usual stuff. As Brader points out: Let's not forget, the GPs who are the recipients of advertising for a pharmaceutical product are also in the target audience for Audi. Their personalities, wants, needs, desires and ambitions do not change when they walk into the surgery.

She notes: One of the biggest trends in healthcare in recent years has been to abandon the 'message from our sponsor' school of advertising, which starts and ends with a dominant feature of the product. More and more, successful advertising takes the vantage point of the user (in our case, the healthcare professional) as the starting point.

There is an impression that consumer rather than 'sciencey' people and implicit rather than 'informative' advertising techniques and styles could improve the end result (ie, the lines between consumer and healthcare are becoming blurred). However, the clichéd beach/bicycle templates suggest that there is no real separation between healthcare and consumer advertising. There are only fresh or passé ideas; in which case, Brader's comments apply to all advertising, not just the advertising of medicines.

It's true that we often perceive boundaries between genres of advertising, forgetting that there are trends in communications which transcend category definition. Even those who see healthcare as a separate 'silo' would acknowledge that all those in receipt of such advertising (as well as those who create it) are exposed to stimuli from brands of all kinds. And rightly so, she adds.

I'm influenced by healthcare ads because they're mostly awful and I need to avoid replicating their awfulness, comments Selwyn Learner, creative director at Ogilvy Healthworld, whose Invega ad received a high commendation at the 2007 Pharmaceutical Marketing Society Advertising Awards. Most consumer ads, by the way, are also poor. So I try to be influenced by the great consumer ads.

Of course, the great consumer ads often have creative teams with colossal experience, supported by agencies wielding Thor-like influence; armies of inspired wits against which most specialist healthcare agencies might not hope to compete on scale and creative resource. However, while it's probably fair to say that advertising for medicines has not always been seen to be as sexy as advertising for food; as sultry as advertising for cars; as eye-catching as for low-rate mortgages or even as charming as for jewellery, the accepted wisdom is that the best offerings can be as fine as any consumer work.

No healthcare agency can match the depth of talent in consumer, but the good pharma ads are more or less on a par with some of the best; but I think only just, adds Learner. By 'consumer', I mean ads that are single-minded, stylish and have at their heart a conceptual idea. It seems that healthcare agencies increasingly recognise that their ads could go this way. I think it is going this way because advertising places the utmost importance on impact and relevance, and as the consumer world becomes more and more sophisticated, the gulf between what is done and what is possible becomes ever more apparent.

As a generalisation, most healthcare advertising in the past - though some claim it remains the case - was certainly more 'medical' than 'consumer', informing people appropriately and with decorum; rather like a doctor.

Dean Woolley, creative director at Woolley Pau, which took home four PM Society awards in January (including Journal Advertisement Campaign and GP Campaign), says that while it is appropriate to judge healthcare work against the most effective advertising from other sectors, there need not be a perceived 'divide' between them.

I don't really think in terms of 'consumer' advertising and 'healthcare' advertising at all. There's no reason why an ad for a prescription treatment can't be equally as good as an ad for Tesco or training shoes or anything else. The limits to success are in the quality of the strategic thinking and the creativity of the execution - but that's the same for every kind of brand.

He concludes: There's just advertising: some of it is good; most of it is bad, and I reckon the proportion of good to bad is about the same in every sector.

Sarah Sowerby, formerly copy chief at Paling Walters and now a freelance copywriter, believes that there have always been some ad agencies that appreciate more than others that healthcare professionals are humans who have very human responses to advertising. She says: Over the years, more clients have caught on to this thinking, recognising the commercial value of an emotional attachment to their brands. While there is certainly a desire to do more 'consumer-style' advertising, it's easier said than done and only the most dedicated succeed.

Another important reason for pharma to nurture implicit sentiments towards its brands is that the audience - doctors - don't in the main use, see or even pay for the products. Unlike consumer advertising, where the audience is ultimately expected to consume the subject of the ad, pharma must rely on eliciting a feeling in medics towards their brands, helping them to be comfortable prescribing them. However, many companies still do not embrace this technique as they could, preferring the safer option of citing data and relying on dry medical persuasions.

A chief proponent in what might be termed 'consumer-style' healthcare advertising is Paling Walters, which recently collected the PM Society's 2007 craft awards for GP Journal Advertisement and Hospital Journal Advertisement. It might even be said that the agency's Xenical campaign for Roche looks more consumer than healthcare.

European creative director, Frank Walters, whose career in consumer advertising spanned 14 years before he switched to healthcare 20 years ago, is keen to stress the importance of knowing who you are talking to through your advertising and communicating with them respectfully - as 'human beings'.

We treat doctors as human beings, we don't treat them as specialists wearing white coats. I know they're intellectuals and, more importantly, that they see themselves as intellectuals. There is a way of talking to a professional, but we talk to them like your everyday person. We talk to them as adults, normal humans, keeping the ideas simple but using intelligence and elements of humour. That's what people are used to. We're all like that; we all live in the same world and respond to things that are already out there. I think that's really important and I encourage all the creatives to stay 'vital' and to keep in touch with the world. We must stay tuned in to what's going on.

The big consumer brands, he notes, show significant insight into what people want and desire. They take the bare functionality of something, like a car or a shoe, and give it an emotional presence, cloaking it in a brand drape. This same conviction, a classic principle of brand advertising, is what underlines Paling Walter's acknowledged success; to date, the company has amassed close to 500 awards for its creative work.

I've always pushed internally for the philosophy that everyone within our creative department should be aware of the world they live in. We don't come to work and put on 'healthcare hats' and think 'we're healthcare creatives so we'd better start thinking about how we should design the next steady state plasma chart'. We don't do that. We're an advertising agency, we concentrate on branding and we try to find the best ways of communicating the attributes of a product, turning it into a brand that prescribers can understand and want to buy in to on an emotional level.

Walters adds fervently that this will not necessarily be reflected in research. Research will say that 'doctors just want the information'. Well, we have salesforces for that. A salesforce is designed to sit in front of doctors and say 'listen doc, I can tell you all about this steady state plasma chart' - and the doctor will reply 'yes that's very interesting, thank you' - but the advertising element, in the traditional sense, is where you have to remain implicit. You imply the values of the brand, rather than sitting down and talking about the functionality.

Leo Burnett, whose agency Walters served early in his career, was one of the very first to refer to 'connecting attributes' in brand advertising, used widely now for consumer products but still less so in healthcare. He said that if all cigarettes are equal - just tobacco wrapped in paper - something else was required to market their appeal. In the case of Marlborough, Burnett chose a cowboy as the connecting attribute.

Now cowboys and cigarettes have nothing to do with each other, Walters points out, but it's what the cowboy stands for - getting in the saddle, riding the range, being your own man - which attracts the target group (male smokers) anywhere in the world. You don't actually have to want to be a cowboy. It's like BMW: the company doesn't sell cars on how the engines work, it talks about what the car says about you, your aspirations and status as a BMW owner. Why should healthcare be different?

Sarah Sowerby agrees that the most effective way to produce compelling communication is usually to tap into people's psyche, ambition or emotional needs. That is communication which makes somebody think, feel, act, believe or behave differently. It might mean changing their mind completely, or further embedding entrenched beliefs. 'Shouting' at your audience in bullet points, while repeating a single pharma image and headline for three years will produce results, but will it be as compelling as it could be?

So while a few pharmaceutical advertising agencies claim to have always applied 'consumer' thinking in their work, and indeed some key operators do not perceive there to be a notable difference between the two genres, the use of emotive connecting attributes seems to be becoming more commonplace across the sector.

Yet, this is not the only change happening within healthcare advertising. There is also the emergence of the 'global brief'. Indeed, global advertising briefs from pharma companies - core campaigns usually sent over from the US for local application in European markets -are not only shrinking the world, but changing advertising practice even more fundamentally than the consumer trends are. Every little helps.

The Author
Rob Skelding is a freelance pharmaceutical journalist

10th April 2008


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