Square peg, meet round hole: when, why and how pharmaceutical advertising doesn’t work

By December 17, 2008Uncategorized

In a post put up this morning, Seth Godin discussed the recently-discovered fact that, as he puts it, traditional brand advertising on Facebook is a "total failure." There is a lot to be learned about pharma advertising in this observation, and the thinking that follows it.

Godin goes on to observe that:

First, these big companies are asking precisely the wrong question.
They are asking, "how can we use these new tools to leverage our
existing businesses?" They want to use the thing they have (money) to
get the thing they need (attention)
and are basically trying to force
ads onto a medium that just doesn't want them. Do people really want to
follow P&G on Twitter so they can learn about the history of the
soap operas they sponsored? Why? There are millions of people to friend
or follow or interact with… why oh why are you going to spend time
with Dunkin Donuts unless there is something in it for you?

Traditional advertising is inherently selfish. It interrupts in
order to generate money (part of which pays for more interruptions).
That approach doesn't work at a cocktail party, or at a funeral or in a
social network.


Pharma advertising, particularly DTC, has followed this model, more or less. Partially because of FDA restrictions, and partially because of tradition, most pharma advertising is simply intended to create awareness, and perhaps convey a few simply brand attributes. Think of, for example, the Lunesta moth. A potent symbol, but not a lot of depth.

That works fairly well when you're marketing into a healthy economy, or at least one that's growing. Particularly with elective drugs like Lunesta, or Viagra, the purchase decision has a healthy amount of impulse or discretion in it. A patient sees the moth. The doctor has seen it, too. During an office visit, the patient mentions occasional insomnia, asks for Lunesta, and the doctor is happy to prescribe it. The patient's insurance covers it, it's just as safe and effective as any of several other options, and all in all, the entire undertaking is not that different from buying a CD or something. It's basically discretionary. The interruption/attention model of traditional advertising works fairly well, particularly in mass media, like television or print, which are good at creating product awareness among millions of people.

Now, alter this scenario by tightening up the economy, and additionally, making the drug something less discretionary, like a medication for MS, or diabetes. There is a lot more at stake to both the patient and the physician. First of all, the patient's copay is higher (remember the weakening economy) so it's not quite such a minor purchase. Second, the impact of an ineffective prescription might be a lot worse than a bad night's sleep.

Under circumstances like this, mere awareness isn't good enough. Everyone involved in the decision is going to have to think a lot harder. There's more at stake. What's needed isn't simply awareness, but engagement. And that's something that the traditional advertising methods and media simply aren't designed to deliver.

They still have their place — in fact, a big place. My point, though, is that using money and/or simple repetition or prominence to create generalized awareness, doesn't cut it when you have a more complex purchase decision, requiring more attention, more involvement, and more consideration. Awareness has to be augmented with engagement. And that is something that traditional brand advertising isn't intended to do, and never was.

This need for more consideration is therefore extended not just to patients and physicians, but to advertisers and marketers as well. Everyone has to start thinking harder about where they're spending their money, and what kind of reaction it will create. This probably means interactive, which demands much more intelligence, understanding and judgment. Using Facebook as a marketing tool doesn't mean simply using it as a place to put up yet more branded advertising. You have to use the media itself, in a way that's based on its inherent qualities. Simply hammering yet another square peg into a decidedly round hole is not going to work.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • James Pete says:

    Re: elective drugs and the Lunesta moth
    A man goes to a General Practioner’s office. “What seems to be the problem?” the doctor asks.
    “I think I’m a moth.”
    “Well, there’s a psychiatrist just up the road.”
    “I know, but your light was on.”

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