6th Content Marketing for Life Science
6th Content Marketing for Life Sciences
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Friday, September 16, 2016

Do Drug Ads Need to Scare Consumers to Motivate Them?

I was quoted in an AdAge story (see embedded summary at the end of this post) about the recent spate of scary drug ads seen on TV and in print. The title of the article - "Halloween Already? Big Pharma Marketers Try Terror Tactics to Scare Up Sales" - was bit over the top but, hey, that's how you sell content.

The article quoted me as saying "a trend with companies, especially ones with injectable drugs and vaccines, which also have big price increases, is to scare people into buying their product or getting their vaccine." I have posted about that here on Pharma Marketing Blog ( read "Branded as Well As Unbranded Vaccine Ads Are the Scariest!").

My comments hit a nerve with Bob Ehrlich, Chairman of DTC Perspectives, who wrote in an email to his subscribers: "Drug ads are meant to motivate action. Showing what can happen when not vaccinated is not fear mongering. I have been reviewing DTC ads for over 20 years and there is no new trend to using scare tactics." [Ehrlich doesn't mention me by name. Sigh!]

I can only say that I stand by my opinion based on my paltry 16 years of reviewing DTC advertising via Pharma Marketing News and ~12 years here on this blog.

Mr. Ehrlich had some other things to say in defense of scary drug ads.

"A scary disease caused by failure to get a vaccine deserves a sober assessment of the situation," said Ehrlich. "Showing a person dealing with a life threatening allergy shows reality. Meningitis can kill, and HPV can cause cancer. Advertising deadly consequences is meant to be scary. The ads referred to as cheerful were those for conditions that were bothersome, but not deadly, such as allergy ads."

Perhaps. But some ads are unecessarily scary IMHO. Take, for example, GSK's whooping cough, disease awareness ad, which I said "Needlessly Vilifies Grannies!" (here). The premise of this scare tactic is that grandparents can transmit whooping cough to their newborn grandchildren because they - the grandparents - haven't been vaccinated. fO course, GSK has a whooping cough vaccine approved ONLY for adults 65 years of age and older. Thus, GSK must market only for that use even though the CDC says that expectant mothers can provide "the most protection to your baby by getting the whooping cough vaccine during pregnancy and making sure your baby gets her whooping cough vaccines on time."

In addition, a study of health care workers -- e.g., nurses handling newborn infants -- unrecognized pertussis infections (diagnosed by serology) were common, with an average annual rate of infection of 33%. Why doesn't GSK scare/villify healthcare worker in to asking THEIR doctor about vaccination? It seems OK for pharma to vilify and scare one stakeholder group (consumers) and not another, more likely suspect stakeholder group (healthcare workers).

In any case, are scare tactics really necessary to get consumers to "ask their doctor?" Perhaps the drug industry is taking a lesson from Donald Trump's presidential campaign, which relies heavily on scare tactics. But whether you call it "fear mongering" or something else, such tactics are the staple of demagogues. Is that how the drug industry wants people to view it?

BTW, I hope to attend the DTC Forum on TV and Print conference hosted by DTC Perspectives this October in Philadelphia, PA. DTC Perspectives was kind enough to give me a press pass.

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