For its latest campaign to tackle asthma, AstraZeneca enlisted Phil.

However, their lead for the Asthma Behaving Badly effort which launched at the end of September, isn’t your typical spokesperson. 

Phil is a purple, anthropomorphic representation of an eosinophil to help raise awareness of a common but serious form of asthma that often goes overlooked. Phil’s color choice was inspired by the fact that hematoxylin leaves a purple stain on the nuclei of eosinophils in a common test for their presence. 

As the campaign name indicates, Phil behaves badly — dropping in at inopportune moments and generally disrupting those who have to live with the condition. Phil will also play a role in other patient outreach for AstraZeneca, including through the company’s long-running partnership with comedian Tony Hale, from Arrested Development.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 25 million Americans have asthma.

The unbranded campaign uses the 'Phils' to explain a type of white blood cells.

Asthma Behaving Badly aims to identify and treat eosinophilic asthma, which an estimated 50% of asthma cases may be caused by elevated numbers of eosinophils, a variety of white blood cells. 

Per AstraZeneca, 1.5 million patients have severe uncontrolled asthma and four out of five of those patients may have eosinophilic asthma. While eosinophils consume foreign substances and regulate inflammation, an excess of them can lead to a number of diseases, including asthma. 

Matt Gray, executive director of Fasenra marketing at AstraZeneca, explains the fine line that the campaign is trying to walk, with the help of Phil. 

“The first thing with the campaign is that we were going for fun, though not funny, if that makes sense,” he says. “We want it to be upbeat, but it is a very serious disease.”

Gray adds that AstraZeneca is seeking to help people living with severe asthma (estimated at around 10% of all asthma diagnoses) who have learned to live with a “new normal.” Some patients may not realize that their asthma may be different and they could benefit from different treatments, he notes. 

“They’re using their inhalers, the usual traditional medications, but there’s just something missing,” he explains. “There’s something more out there beyond just the usual triggers, like pollen and allergies. We are letting them know that there’s something different out there, a different kind of asthma they might not be aware of and that it’s actually surprisingly common.”

Gray describes one of the goals of the site to be engaging in some “myth-busting” and he points to two main ones. 

“First, asthma’s all about triggers. It’s not just about triggers, however, it can be intrinsic—eosinophils are that,” he says. “Second is regarding the level of control you can expect to have over it. If you’re not able to function as if you don’t have asthma, then you have to keep looking for another solution. There are treatments out there that may work for a lot of patients.”

In pursuit of its myth-busting objectives, the Asthma Behaving Badly website has two main components, according to Gray. Much of the site is focused on increasing awareness of eosinophilic asthma while a questionnaire encourages those completing it to think about the level of control they have over their asthma and realize they may be able to do even better. 

“The biggest message [of the campaign] is that there’s hope,” he says. “We can give patients hope, educate them that there is a different kind of asthma and that there are medicines for it that would allow them to get control. Eosinophilic asthma is not well known, though it’s surprisingly common and patients need to think about it if they’re not getting the control they need.”