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Poor diagnosis

Ogilvy Healthworld's new creative director, Adrian Kemsley, gets an inside view into the health of healthcare advertising

A doctor taking a patient's blood pressureAs I write, I am in the third week of my creative directorship of Ogilvy Healthworld — as the new kid on the wing I've just been asked to prove myself by writing the Ad Lib column.

This is daunting because although it's an opportunity to promote myself as a 'creative health guru', I know little about pharma advertising. This could be either a good thing or bad thing.

I'm from a consumer background, you see, and, glancing through the various medical publications that arrive on my desk daily, I'm a little confused about how to judge the ads in them — as a consumer or as a medic? But hold on a minute: aren't they one and the same?

I realise that there are regulatory reasons we can't promote products in certain ways and that production budgets are smaller in healthcare than in consumer advertising, but is this really an excuse for the majority of the work to look so old-fashioned, and downright cheap and ugly?

There. I said it. Pharma career over. I might as well keep going, then...

None of it seems to reach out and touch me on an emotional level. When I say "emotional", I don't mean depicting happy, smiling souls; I'm talking about being able to maintain a semi-intelligent dialogue with the audience.

GPs, pharmacists and scientists don't live in a parallel universe to the rest of commercial civilisation. Mainstream advertising helps influence these professionals to choose one product over another in other areas of their lives, so why in their professional sphere do pharma agencies talk to them as if they were heartless drones whose interest would be restricted to reading ads that are only slightly more engaging than a de-humidifier instruction manual?

Being the new boy, I wondered if I was alone in my opinions, so I decided not to trust them and get a second opinion, this time from a leading medical professional. I asked him (without leading him) for his thoughts about the health of healthcare advertising generally, and about the first five ads in a random copy of GP magazine specifically. My findings were revealing.

Dr David Collier, BSc, MBBS, PhD, research fellow in clinical pharmacology at Barts and The London School of Medicine, reckons: "So many of the healthcare ads I see are at such a low level. They're aimed at highly perceptive readers, who spend much of their day trying to look beyond what someone's telling them to the problems beneath. They're not going to be interested in poorly presented, weak material. They're much more likely to be engaged by humour, reverse logic or something more compelling and entertaining."

Dr Collier's assessment follows.


ACTOS - for diabetes 

Actos advertisment

This is an extremely important class of compounds for the drug companies. The image of breaking through the barriers of this great castle of sugar is trying to make an association between the idea of sugar and diabetes, and breaking down the sugariness with the drug. It's pretty crass and crude; more reminiscent of TV's 'It's A Knockout' than of having the power to prevent someone from going blind or losing their kidneys.

It's not terribly arresting. I think that, under normal circumstances, flicking through the magazine, I probably would have ignored it.



TREDAPTIVE - for dyslipidaemia

It's not very appealing, visually. The idea is that you're trying to add the process of raising good cholesterol to that of lowering bad cholesterol: the ad tries to convey this multi-dimensionality by depicting objects coming at the main character from different directions. I think the ad could have had a lot more impact if the threat had been more visually striking. Overall, I think this ad is recessive and gently ignorable.


Tredaptive advertisement 


QLAIRA - oral contraceptive

Qlaira advertisement

This combined oral contraceptive ad tells us that it's closer to a woman's nature and shows a smiling model. I think the really relevant information is not prominent enough. There's nothing visually, emotionally or verbally engaging; again, I'd probably just ignore this.



FLEXITOL - skin care

At least this shows examples of before and after and informs the reader that the drug is now available on prescription. It does more or less what it says on the tin. The graphs are not badly presented and overall the ad looks relatively competent. It's just a shame that the designer couldn't have made it more elegant.

Flexitol advertisement 

ASACOL - inflammation of the digestive tract

Asacol advertisement

This is very busy, with too many fonts and too many font sizes. Visually, it's incomprehensible; it's a mess! I can't read it to understand what it's about. All those hands going up, it's meaningless nonsense and doesn't communicate anything to me. It looks like bad clip art in PowerPoint. The line "From strength to strength" has no emotional impact and the graphics detract from the message, though it isn't clear there is 'a message', as such. If there is one, however, it's that the company wants you to prescribe by brand name and tablet strength, but the ad doesn't really tell you why and doesn't give any supportive evidence. I don't think it makes the point at all; it's quite unsatisfactory. As I said, it's very busy and manages to fill the page with very little real content.



Dr Collier concludes: "Generally I think these adverts are pretty poor. It's almost as if, because we the audience deal with subjects that are emotionally very weighty, we're not allowed to have this conveyed in any of our advertising. Most of what you have shown me, paradoxically, is sterile, weak and doesn't credit the reader with any intelligence.

"A majority of the ads push an inappropriate message or they raise red herrings in my mind. They're very badly laid out, filled with too much information, dull and generally ghastly in terms of visual appeal.

"For advertising to touch us, it must contain a certain level of intelligence and engagement, speaking to us as individuals as well as healthcare professionals."

I expect Dr Collier feels a lot better for getting all that off his chest, and I couldn't have got it off mine any better.

But still, this does not amount to a great prognosis from an eminent member of the target audience.

Admittedly I've only used a sample of one, but it is nevertheless a good indication that there is an unmet opportunity in healthcare communications to speak to a sophisticated audience in a way that avoids insulting its intelligence, which is great news.

It's clear that this is a land of opportunity for all of us concerned with adding value to our clients' brands through creativity.

The bottom line is that we are all in a corner of advertising where time seems to have stood still. Right now there's everything to play for, and the fruit is low-hanging... so let's get picking.


Adrian Kemsley
The Author
Adrian Kemsley is new creative director at Ogilvy Healthworld

To comment on this article, email

Ad Lib is a creative critique of healthcare ads and does not take into account the marketing objectives behind the campaigns reviewed.


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17th May 2010


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