PHARMA ADVERTISING NEEDS A DIFFERENT KIND OF E.D.
Have you noticed (if you watch any traditional cable or dish TV shows, of course you have) how much more dominant, repetitive, and yes, annoying than ever in recent memory have become the ads for two categories of products–Insurance and Pharma? Within Insurance, perhaps none is more relentlessly brow-beaten into us than the Liberty Mutual ads. Then, too, “Jake from State Farm” assures us ad nauseum how everyone (not just his friends) gets good deals–across all types of TV programming. Within Pharma, few brand ads seem more ubiquitous or numerous than the ads for leading diabetes drugs. Shows well beyond that one-time “home” for Rx brands–the NBC, ABC, and CBS Nightly News–are now saturated with ads for diabetes, especially for those newer class drug brands (GLP-1 receptor agonists), Ozempic and Trulicity.
The Insurance and Pharma guys share more in common than their unceasing foghorns, however. In case you were so numbed by the mindless repetition of them all and hadn’t picked up on it, they share products with no differentiation. All the big I-Brands (Geico, State Farm, Progressive, Liberty Mutual) offer the exact same benefit: you can save money with each of them. As for the two GLP-1 diabetes brands mentioned above, they also share the same undifferentiated product benefits: Lower A1C, Reduce CV Risk, and (maybe) Lose some weight. Of course, product benefits among drug brands within a similar class, what is commonly referred to as “class effect,” are not all that unusual in Pharma.
Nor, sad to say, is it unusual for Rx ads, regardless of class, to all somehow look the same. Faced with such criticism most Pharma marketers will waste little time in reminding you that the FDA restricts their communications mercilessly. So, they have such a very small “creative box” to maneuver within. Oh sure, there is significant oversight in all Rx communications, maybe even more so for broadscale ones like TV advertising. But even accepting this, what has always baffled us is that way too many Pharma Companies–especially among their senior management and marketers–miss a key brand-building principle. That principle goes something like this: When you have no product advantage to win with, create a brand advantage. In advertising, this principle translates as follows: Substitute an executional advantage for an absent product performance advantage. Perhaps better stated, create Executional Differentiation (a different kind of E.D. for Rx)) where no Product Differentiation exists…in order to have better chance of winning in the marketplace.
Quite honestly, this principle was not so top-of-mind for us in our formative marketing years. We grew up in marketing with companies that demanded product performance differentiation and went to market with brands that had that differentiation. Over time, though, as more and more products in more and more categories coalesced with “age of sameness” benefits, we learned that certain leadership brands were implementing communications (particularly TV advertising campaigns) that had executional advantages over others in their category. What kinds of executional advantages? First and foremost, an idea; more precisely, a Campaign Idea. But even more than this–even without a bona fide Idea–advertising that was real, honest, and in no way phony. Which brings us back, at last, to Ozempic and Trulicity. Neither brand’s ad campaign embodies any semblance of a Campaign Idea. That’s too bad. Big, missed opportunity to engender some E.D. What’s worse than this miss, however, is how overloaded ads for Ozempic and Trulicity are with E.P. (that would be Executional Phoniness), thereby precluding any possibility of Executional Differentiation.
Trulicity & “Still Got It” –In this, the brand’s current marquee spot, we follow a teenage boy and his uncle spending time together outdoors, with much of that time given to activities, especially pick-up basketball. The gist is that the nephew admires how is uncle, though past middle age and medically obese, still puts out the effort–in competing, trying to get back into shape, and presumably living healthier with diabetes (aided by Trulicity, naturally). A straightforward premise…if only it was executed credibly. Truly, the only authenticity in this ad for Trulicity is in casting: the uncle definitely shows the demographics and body-type of the average diabetes patient. Everything else screams inauthenticity, phoniness:
- While stopping for a bite at a food truck on the beach, nephew opts for the typical gut-bomb; uncle chooses instead a plastic cup of raw celery and carrots (C’mon!)
- Nephew spies uncle out at night doing solo sit-ups under the lights of a basketball court (Really?)
- In another scene, probably linked with the earlier beach outing, nephew spots uncle in some bizarre, still-life tai-chi/yoga like pose (Ridiculous!)
C’mon, Trulicity marketers, your Diabetes Target might relate with the uncle’s looks, but never with his food choices or actions. Have you all spent any day-to-day time with these people? (Wait a minute, I can already imagine a response: “The FDA requires us to portray healthy lifestyle practices when advertising our drug”). Likely true. But surely there is a more realistic, more authentic, less patently phony way to do that?
Ozempic & “Back to the Show” + “Pickle Ball) –The brand’s long-running early ad, “Back to the Show,” featured actor Billy Gardell who had starred in the CBS sitcom “Mike and Molly.” As a known spokesperson, an actual Type-2 Diabetes sufferer, and himself considerably obese/out-of-shape, Gardell likely made for a near-perfect lead. And, to his credit, he does present the brand and his own diabetes issues well. But somehow (pushy brand managers insisting upon Ozempic “branding signals” and gimmicks? or worse, run amuck advertising agency creatives merely “playing around” with brand colors and that brand letter “O/Oh”?) what authenticity Gardell brings to the party gets overwhelmed with all the silly accessories: red clothes, red car, the Big Red “O” staked in the ground for Billy to tiptoe around–a phony branding substitute for real exercise, along with the shots showing him doing bare minimum arm lifts with weights.
The latest spot, “Pickle Ball,” takes these inane portrayals of senior adult exercise even farther from reality. To the advertising agency’s credit–on being up with the latest thing in senior sporting activities, anyway–they have chosen to feature a foursome playing at red-hot pickle ball. Emphasis on the words “playing at” because, clearly, these actors have not only no idea how to play pickle ball, obviously they’ve never played it. Honestly, it’s not clear what slow-motion version of a net court game they really are playing at. You don’t have to take our word for it. Here are a few viewer comments (from YouTube viewings):
- “Worst commercial ever. Does anyone notice the strenuous activity going on during these pickle ball games? I laughed the entire time.”
- “That is not a real pickle ball game going on. Real pickle ball players bump paddles at the end of a real game, no hand shaking. Pathetic.”
- “I wish the ad agency who created these commercials used REAL pickle ball players and portrayed REAL pickle ball tournament play.
Are we being too hard on these guys? If so, sorry. But the real question is this: Are these guys making it way too hard for their advertising to work in inciting diabetes patient behavior? Without a Campaign Idea target customers can relate to, get involved with, and have good reason to act upon, getting any ad to work is damn hard. But when you add to that a BS-load of phoniness, getting advertising to work is damn near impossible.
Think about it: we opened noting the astounding frequency ads from brands like Ozempic and Trulicity (ok, and Liberty Mutual too) run…is it really a good idea to keep reminding , reminding, reminding potential customers just how unreal, inauthentic, and phony your brand appears?
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Richard Czerniawski and Mike Maloney