Celebrity pharma ads: Opportunity or PR disaster?

Novo Nordisk suspended its relationship with celebrity chef Paula Deen after Deen admitted during a deposition to having used racially insensitive language. Photo credit: John Parra/Getty

For Amy Doner, it was a eureka moment. While working on a Schering-Plough melanoma-awareness campaign, she happened to catch an episode of ER. In it Noah Wyle's Dr. John Carter identified a suspicious-looking mole on a patient's body as a possible melanoma. “I thought to myself, ‘Getting moles looked at—that's the exact message I'm pitching,' ” she recalls. Shortly thereafter, Doner connected with Wyle's reps and with the client, and a spokesperson relationship was born.

Doner soon realized she was on to something. “The media Noah was attracting was so different than what we had before. All of a sudden it was Entertainment Tonight and Good Morning America and People. Only so many people read the health column, you know?” Doner eventually made this her life's work: Her company, The Amy Doner Group, counts as its sole mission connecting healthcare and Hollywood. She's a professional matchmaker of sorts, pairing companies like Pfizer, Merck and Novartis with celebrities like Cindy Crawford, Joe Torre and Sally Field.

From the rise of social media to the rise of celebrity ads

Sally Field is a spokesperson for bone-building drug Boniva by Roche and GlaxoSmithKline. Photo credit: Casa de América/Creative Commons

If you think you're seeing more of these types of pharma/personality partnerships, well, you're not alone. As our collective fascination with celebrity has surged, so too has the desire to tap that fascination for the quote-unquote right reasons: Bringing a medical condition to the forefront and giving patients who suffer from that condition someone with whom to identify. Indeed, the number of celebrity-centric disease-awareness and brand campaigns has spiked during the social-media era.

See also: The best and worst celebrity pharma moments

“In general, people are much more apt to disclose more about themselves than they used to, so it follows that they'd be more comfortable with sharing health information,” says Mark Finn, VP, account director at AbelsonTaylor. “That extends to celebrities. It's no longer a stigma in many disease states for them to stand up and talk about it. In many cases, they actually feel a responsibility to do it.”

But while celebrities may be more receptive than ever before to working alongside pharma, such programs carry with them a degree of risk. First and foremost is the lack of control that comes with any personality-centric campaign. Unlike lesser-known (and presumably lesser-booked) campaign participants, celebrities can be whisked off for reshoots on a moment's notice. If they say something dumb on social media or act inelegantly while out in public, they'll get called out for it in a way that most of the rest of us wouldn't. Don't buy it? Ask Subway how it feels about binding its brand to Jared Fogle nowadays.

See also: 15 unexpected Twitter responses to the "Who Pneu?" campaign

Ambre Brown Morley, senior director, product communications for diabetes & obesity marketing at Novo Nordisk, faced such a situation head-on while working on Novo's “Diabetes in a New Light” program, during which it became public that campaign spokesperson Paula Deen had admitted during a deposition to using racially insensitive language. Novo ultimately suspended the relationship—which had been a successful one, owing to Deen's relatability to the target audience of women with diabetes—but did so in a far different, and more sensitive manner, than Deen's other corporate partners.

“The one thing I can say is that at the end of the day, she's still a person and still a patient—and as a company, we put patients first in everything we do,” Morley says. “There's a right way and a wrong way to handle something like that. We wanted to make sure she was treated right.”

Authenticity is a top priority

Actress Mira Sorvino and her father Paul Sorvino, who has type 2 diabetes, worked with Sanofi to raise awareness of the disease. Photo credit: Sanofi

Admittedly, this is an extreme example; few pharma marketers have found themselves in the situation that Novo did (and it's worth noting that Novo's Ambassador program, currently featuring personalities/patients like NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins and Run-DMC founding member Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, is regarded as one of the industry's most successful). But there are any number of potential problems that can be anticipated (and, ideally, dealt with) well in advance of a campaign's first public moments.

The first and most important is gauging the personality's interest and attempting to get a bead on whether he or she will come across as authentic. This almost always involves a face-to-face sit-down prior to cementing the company/celebrity arrangement. “For me, that's non-negotiable,” Doner says. “It's great to talk to the agent or publicist, but I need that conversation with the talent.”

See also: 50 celebrity healthcare endorsements

Morley agrees, adding that there are certain specific things she listens for during these conversations. “I want to hear that they're a real patient. I want to hear about their struggles. I want to know what they have to say that other people will be interested in hearing,” she says. “It's not easy to determine if a certain person is going to be able to communicate in a way that influences other people. Just because somebody is famous doesn't make him or her a good and appropriate ambassador.”

Those conversations are also useful in weeding out celebrities whose interest might be less than genuine or who are primarily interested in collecting a paycheck. Doner recalls a late-1990s meeting with what she describes as “a top actress on a hit TV show” who was reportedly enthusiastic about participating in an upcoming incontinence campaign. Minutes into the discussion, Doner realized that the actress would be a complete disaster as a spokesperson.

“We were discussing potential media appearances and, out of nowhere, she asked, ‘If you book me on Rosie O'Donnell's show, do I actually have to say the word incontinence?' ” Doner recalls. “With therapeutic conditions like that, you need someone who will get out there and just not give a damn. Even before talking with the client and even knowing the disappointment that might follow, I said, ‘We cannot use her.' ” The client's disappointment didn't last long: A lesser-known actress stepped in and the campaign ultimately proved a success.

The future of celebrity-endorsed programs

As for the future of such programs, Finn believes that pharma marketers have only just began to tap their promotional potential. “So far, [celebrities] have mostly talked about their stories—‘I was unable to do something I used to do,' ‘I felt really bad as a result of this condition,' ” he says. “I think the next step is going beyond ‘I'm going to talk with you honestly about my feelings.' ”

To this end, Finn speculates that pharma marketers may eventually seek to use celebrities as brand characters, much in the same way that consumer programs have. “We haven't cast celebrities against type,” he continues. “It's so much fun for celebrities to do something like that. They can let their hair down a little.” Asked if he thinks pharma might get on board with this, Finn responds, “I hope so. Given how much of this is out there, it's the kind of thing which may be needed to really break through.”