Image courtesy of Melody Ko

With pharma having spent somewhere around $6 billion on consumer advertising in 2017, there are not only a fair amount of brands playing in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) space but also a fair amount of debate over how to do it right. Against that backdrop, MM&M hosted an event last week in Boston, sponsored by AbelsonTaylor, devoted to discussing topics and trends for the DTC marketer.

To set the stage for a panel I moderated, “Pushing the regulatory envelope,” I noted how, over the years, medical advertising has departed from its rich tradition of creativity within the boundaries. But industry, I declared, is now holding itself to a higher standard.

Let me clarify what led to the creative drought, if you want to call it that, in the first place. Some have said that creativity took a back seat in order to drive home the message of science over promotion. Others have said that ads hadn’t necessarily become less creative, just retooled to handle different communication needs, like managed care formularies and doctors’ desire for comparative data. The result: creative people, it often seems, can’t get out of their own regulatory box.

But today, marketers are presented with a chance to think differently. What’s changed? “Since 1997, the DTC broadcast rules really haven’t changed that much at all,” explained John Kamp, executive director, Coalition for Healthcare Communication.

More accurately, it’s the marketers who are changing. A new guard are entering industry who’ve figured out better ways of using DTC to pull the levers of patient centricity, context, and relevance. And they’re more confident in pushing the regulatory envelope while staying responsible. In the spirit of that newfound confidence, here are six signs, identified by the panel, that pharma DTC and its practitioners are coming out of their shell:

1. A reckoning is at hand with regard to side effects. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, wants to limit the lists of side effects presented in DTC drug ads. In the meantime, marketers need to think more creatively about how to convey what the patient really needs to know, in a way they can understand it. OPDP is open to this kind of translation, as long as the company is transparent, said Michelle Nguyen, Shire senior director, consumer marketing lead. The fair balance is an opportunity to establish credibility, added Stephen Neale, SVP, executive creative director, AbelsonTaylor, so don’t squander it. “If you’re dealing with a :60 spot, you’ve got to pack in so much information…sometimes you’re left with about :15 to tell your story. That :35 of fair balance, you absolutely have to utilize it, continue your story, and inform the consumer something about the brand that they need to know.”

2. Marketers also appear to be turning a corner with regard to use of what one panelist described as “broad negativity” in ads. Messages like, ”I’m missing my son’s soccer game,” are being replaced by a focus on finding that one “personally relevant attribute” of a disease and then bringing it to life in an emotionally resonant way, sometimes through a light-hearted approach, observed Debra Harris, Conde Nast executive director, industry solutions, health. That can help the brand forge a bond far better than repeating the you-can’t-do-this-or-that negativity, she said. 

3. Pharma brands are partnering with publishers to bring the message where audiences are already engaging, often in non-endemic media. To wit: Shire’s ophthalmic brand team has partnered with Conde Nast’s Self lifestyle media brand. The team, said Nguyen, is also acting more like a lifestyle brand in the content it presents on that channel, for instance, by honing in on small insights that facilitate an emotional connection, then educating appropriately through use of storytelling and other techniques. Think edu-tainment.

4. There is a collective realization that the adversarial relationship around the regulation needs to give way in favor of a collaboration, said Nguyen. Her company works with regulatory experts at their agency partners to ensure the campaign is built with proper guardrails from the start, while brand teams work with their MLR colleagues to plan pre-clearance strategy. “Good MLR departments say, ‘This can get us into problems. What are we trying to accomplish? Let’s think of a way we can creatively solve for this and still get the message across safely,’” said Neale. The guardrails actually lead to better creative. “It’s all about planning and collaboration,” Nguyen said.

5. The old practices are becoming the outliers. The panel actually shared a laugh about some of these, like awkward use of celebrity spokespeople and/or pop songs in commercials. “There’s one out there by Fleetwood Mac,” joked Neale. “When one of your big side effects is death and the title of the song is Go Your own Way, I wonder what kind of message that’s sending.” Not that there aren’t good examples of using classic rock and celebs in TV spots. The key is to ensure such use is appropriate and actually helps cut through the clutter to differentiate the brand. Indeed, brand directors often think they can “recreate the magic” and stick with what’s tried and true, said Nguyen. But all that produces is white noise. “It doesn’t educate. It’s within regulation but it doesn’t achieve any goals.” Amen to that. 

6. A final question I posed to the panel was, why does pharma continue to increase its TV ad spend year after year? TV buys are hugelyexpensive, appeal mainly to an older demographic, and tend to attract unwanted scrutiny on industry.The consensus answer: because it works. Perhaps as the new guard solidifies its place in the DTC driver’s seat, and as skills proliferatein digital and the aforementioned consumer marketing techniques, this last vestige of the old guard will come in for reform, as well. 

Whether these six herald a sea change in DTC, or just a slight reframing of the rules of engagement, remains to be seen. But they’re positive trends, to be sure.

This story has been updated to include a reference to the classic rock song Go Your Own Way, by Fleetwood Mac.

Marc Iskowitz is editor-in-chief of MM&M.