Follow your nose…it always knows. Right? Well, at least that’s what Toucan Sam taught us to believe in the 1970s—a period where characters from Sugar Bear to Lucky tried to charmingly convince us their cereals were “magically delicious.”

Now, more than four decades later, pharma marketers and agencies are following their noses and have gone cuckoo for characters in DTC—often with rhyme but little reason. And, in many cases, they’ve done it with production values and tricks that are for kids.

Over the past year, we’ve seen a twisted tummy, pacing pills, float people filled with air and jubilant toes traversing tennis courts in the name of toenail fungus. It’s becoming grossly overdone.

Are characters in general a bad thing for DTC? Not necessarily. Several years ago, the marketers for Zoloft introduced an abstract but lovable character known as “Dot” for depression. Unlike ads for other antidepressants, which featured depressed patients and reinforced negative stigma, Dot was nebulous by design—not to mention disarming.

The campaign used a simple but scientific demonstration to reinforce the fact that the condition wasn’t the patient’s fault. Instead, it stressed, the condition was the result of a clear chemical imbalance. The creative was simple but powerful and, more importantly, it created an emotional connection with patients.

It also generated tremendous talk value in the industry and within popular culture, amplifying the message and reinforcing the Zoloft brand. More than a decade later, “Dot” stands the test of time as one of the most impactful DTC campaigns ever created.

Unfortunately, what we are now bearing witness to appears to be a “jumping on the character bandwagon” phenomena, regardless of market dynamics. Many of the characters we are now meeting do not appear to be directed at a patient insight or purposefully used to de-stigmatize a disease. What’s more, they appear to be an attempt to be different for the sake of being different (while ironically, creating a sea of sameness).

The production values are often poor and reminiscent of toy commercials directed at children. And that’s neither smart marketing, nor anything that helps position the pharma industry in a favorable way. In fact, it trivializes important diseases and information and adds high voltage to an industry that’s already a lightning rod for criticism.

Moving forward, there’s a burgeoning need to get back to basics in DTC, to remember what matters most: Putting patients first and treating them with dignity and respect. Through that filter, we can better assess what makes sense from a marketing standpoint and determine the best approach—and one that will also be viewed as responsible.

If a character is part of the creative solution, we need to ask ourselves, “Why?”

– Are we addressing an insight or marketing dynamic that lends itself to the use of a character?

– Are we just trying to be different to be different?

– Are we creating an emotional connection with patients through the use of a character?

– Are we trivializing the disease or minimizing potential risk?

– Are we using and developing the character in a responsible way?

Through these lenses we can make smarter choices about how we communicate with patients and determine appropriate use for character representation. We can then do it with true character. And that will keep us from looking like a bunch of Froot Loops.

Mike Rutstein is founder and CEO of Strikeforce Communications.