Friday, November 04, 2005

Why unbranded ads don't work

Patrick Kelly, President of Pfizer US Pharmaceuticals, who testified at the recent FDA public hearing on DTC, announced that Pfizer has allocated a portion of their media budget a financial amount "equivalent to one major medicine" to address general public health as a "stand-alone brand" without mentioning any drug brand. Part of this sum may be used to develop a special category of unbranded ads: Help-seeking ads or unbranded disease-awareness ads. (This is mentioned in Pfizer's DTC Pledge (see "Pfizer DTC Pledge: ED is Litmus Test").

Disease-awareness ads are not subject to the disclosure requirements of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act and FDA regulations. These ads are communications disseminated to consumers or health care practitioners that discuss a particular disease or health condition, but do not mention any specific drug or device or make any representation or suggestion concerning a particular drug or device.

Even though Pfizer -- and other pharma companies -- may be spending more of their media budget in the future on disease-awareness ads, they don't believe these ads are as effective as branded DTC in driving consumers to seek help.

According to Kelly, "general disease-awareness and help-seeking ads do not drive patients to the doctor to anywhere near the degree that information about a solution or a potential solution will." This finding is "not well-understood," said Kelly.

"What we have found," Kelly said, "is that if your express just that you should be aware that there is a medical condition or a disease that you should worry about, it doesn't generate as much action as if you then say there might be potential solutions that you should consult with your provider about. So it is the other connection that is important for motivating action."

Why don't unbranded ads work?

First, Kelly did not identify any scientific analysis of this problem or any data to support his contention that branded ads are better motivators than unbranded ads. He may be referring to real world experience at Pfizer -- internal data that we don't have access to.

This issue was discussed recently on the
Pharma Marketing Online Discussion Forum and I quote the discussion thread here. David, who works at a marketing research firm, opened the discussion:
Having developed and tested many OTC and Rx DTC ads, I believe I can provide some insight as to why unbranded disease awareness ads do not generate response and how to improve these ads.

The reason that consumers respond to branded ads more than unbranded disease awareness ads is primarily not because of a branding effect, although branding is powerful in its own right. Consumers do not respond to a disease awareness ad because they are being made more aware and knowledgeable about a "problem" and less aware and knowledgeable about a "solution" to address that problem. Simply: Who in their right mind wants to know about having a problem for which there is no solution?

So disease awareness ads to get better response, they must discuss availability solutions in greater depth and tangibility without mentioning the brand as well as stay within FDA regulations. This same reasoning is also why health promotion is always more effective than health education. In a consumer driven market, consumers simply want solutions, not problems.
Sounds reasonable. Note that David leaves the door open to how disease awareness ads can be improved without mentioning specific products. James, who works at an interactive ad agency, had this to say:
I think your point is a good one: many historical condition ads have missed the mark for various strategic/tactical reasons. That said, I'm personally not yet willing to temper my current enthusiasm for *good* condition advertising just because many (most?) executions to-date have been ill-conceived or poorly executed.

Good condition advertising, like all effective advertising, doesn't stop with the highlighting of a problem or unmet need ... it has to point to a solution and have a call-to-action. It also has to be distinctive, engaging, and relevant to your target. Shame on clients and agencies who lose sight of these old advertising truths as they move out of their branded ad comfort zone!

As a possible best practice, consider GSK's television ads for their condition website, If you've seen them, it's a compelling (frightening?) narrative of a middle-aged man talking candidly about he failed to take his diabetes seriously. As the commercial unfolds, it's clear that something isn't "just right" with him and his face. My heart skipped a beat as he proceeded to end the commercial by picking up a white cane and shuffling from the room. Yikes.

Ending here would have been a mistake, so I was pleased to see the clear call-to-action: take suspected or diagnosed diabetes seriously, get informed about how to take care of yourself, and see a physician soon if you're at risk. There's hope but you need to take the first few steps.

I'm connected to another unbranded campaign currently in-market for the GSK/ALA "Asthma Control Test" and can't comment on its effectiveness, but perhaps some of you have seen the so-called "Stethoscope" ads and have a POV.
To which David replied:
I agree, there is no reason why condition advertising cannot be improved greatly. As I pointed out, there needs to be solutions conveyed in this advertising so that it is not problem-only advertising. However, here is where the missing branding effect needs to be addressed. Branding, or naming, has a very powerful effect on solutions. Naming gives identity and reality to products and services, and becomes an anchor for advertising communication to keep building meaning and equity around.

But as you point out below, in the GSK ad the call to action is to get diagnosed of the PROBLEM. Getting informed about how to take care of yourself is not necessarily perceived as a solution. Compared to an easy-to-swallow magic pill, taking care of yourself could instead be seen as a difficult on-going challenge of lifestyle change for the rest of one's life, requiring change, giving up some things you like to do, having to exercise and work out, going to a managed care doctor who is very short an unsympathetic and possibly even frightening that the doctor may discover even more serious problems.

I think pharma and managed care should try to see how consumers actually see and experience the healthcare world, not be so immersed in their own beliefs of doing good. I'm not surprised that pharma has an image problem. There is a huge scientific literacy problem in the US. Consumers see drugs as "chemicals" and if a patient has hypertension or Hyperlipidemia, they see the prospect of having to take drugs the rest of their lives as becoming dependent on drugs. On top of it, approved drugs are often latter discovered after widespread usage to have serious and even fatal side effects. No wonder there is a compliance problem!

Instead of 30 and 60 second blurbs, I have often thought that pharma should invest in 30 or 60 minute infomercials where they do real patient education and even an integrated disease management program that is supported by interactive call centers and websites. Unfortunately, morbidity and mortality of the top 6 leading US causes of death can improved significantly with lifestyle changes. But lifestyle change is not easy to accomplish.
I agree with many of the points made by David and James. I would add that pharmaceutical companies, mainly through relentless product-branded "solution" ads to consumers, is the major culprit in fostering the "magic-pill" solution preference among Americans.

Some DTC ads (branded or not) mention lifestyle changes as alternatives to drugs, but they do so only fleetingly. They don't say, for example, that if you are overweight and lose X number of pounds your cadiovascular risk will be lessened by Y%. This is the kind of "solution" message, if repeated often enough (as often as the "take a pill" message is repeated), people might find motivating.

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