Rule of the Tool

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In the everyday advertising jargon that passes for insightful comment, the expression “the rule of the tool” is as rare as hen's teeth. For those unfamiliar with this rule, I'll take a moment to explain. The rule of the tool decrees that, to the person who only has a screwdriver, every task looks like it can be completed using that screwdriver, even when it's clear to everyone else that it is the wrong tool for the job.

Remarkably, the owner of the screwdriver remains completely oblivious to its inappropriateness, for no other reason than there is no alternative tool to hand. He, or she, really does believe it is the best tool for any job, to the point they'll happily dig a trench with it even when it's patently a stupid thing to do.

The screwdriver of course, is a metaphor for any other “tool,” way of thinking or other belief system. For the more devout religious observers, faithful prayer is their main solution (i.e. their tool) to all problems. The tool thinkers will happily get themselves wrapped up in fervent prayer, even when the best way to avoid being hit by the oncoming bus is simply to just step out of its way.

Applied as a metaphor for a restrictive creative approach in our own world of pharmaceutical advertising, it throws up some interesting observations. Take the creative idea. Happy smiling patients, animals on rollerblades and, of course, the ubiquitous boxing gloves are all standard equipment in most people's creative arsenal.

Flipping through a recent awards book I was amazed to see its pages littered with pooches. Was last year the year of the dog? It would seem that, as well as being man's best friend, it's also become the best friend of some creative teams.

However, most worrisome was that no one judging the work saw the patiently obvious elephant in the room. Pre-conditioned thinking is rife. So, if the creative brief calls for a TV spot, or a journal ad, or a detail aid or all of the aforementioned, my question is does it have to be any of these bog standard approaches? In my view the idea always comes first. How it operates, and where it's placed, really depends on where the target audience is looking.

The rule of the tool applied to TV spots exemplifies the point. Nearly all follow the same formula of mindless imagery, a 60-second commercial, 30 of which contain a fair balance voiceover read out at super speed which ends with “Ask your doctor about…” Exactly who else would I ask? My grocer? I can hear the conversation: “…two pounds of apples please, and what do you recommend for my hemorrhoids?”

Today, the pharmaceutical industry spends in excess of $5 billion per year on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising and billions more on physician ads.

Exactly how many do you recall? In fact, I should really include all TV spots currently airing, since DTC is in fierce competition for the viewer's attention much like Nike and Geico. Where is the credibility when actors don a steely grimace to illustrate some imaginary pain in the nether regions?

Regulatory laws prohibit any meaningful claims, however some pseudoceuticals seem to get away with murder, such as “Aktavar…eat all you want and still lose weight. We couldn't say that on TV if it wasn't true.” A new advertising model is crucial, one that's credible, ethical and is of course, memorable.

Physicians fare no better than the viewing patient. We're all painfully aware that the reps time with the doctor is measured in seconds.

In a recent telephone survey of 180,000 doctors, 19% of US office-based physicians refuse to see sales representatives from the drug and device industry at any time, according to SK&A Information Services, Inc. It also stated 22.7% of doctors ask reps to set an appointment.

So once through the hallowed door, is the answer really a 20-page sales aid? Were the words, efficacy, safety and tolerability used as large and bold as possible?

OK, we do it because physicians tell us they're important, but you may as well incorporate a chip that emits a yawn every time the sales aid is opened.

And as for our old friend, the leave behind—will it be a pen or mouse pad emblazoned with the drug claims? Not to mention the regulatory PI and, in some cases, black-box information. By the way, that's a lot of information on a pen.

A tad harsh? Ask a rep—many simply cut up the sales aid to present the important bits or detail off the back page.

The average age of a sales rep is 26 years old. They're technology savvy, own computers, PSP's and other gaming devices. E-interactive promotions and e-detailing can deliver the important information while keeping the doctor interested in learning new facts. Stretching that all-important meeting is about providing relevant information in an interactive format.

Of course, tool-based thinking is apparent in almost every industry, and that's because it's easy to reach for the familiar. However, in our advertising world, I consider the phrase “restrictive creative thinking” an oxymoron.

Next time you're judging a concept, booking the media space or simply wondering how to best present your brand to your target audience, remember the rule of the tool. And use that screwdriver to loosen up the right side of your brain. 


Ross Thomson is an advertising creative consultant

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