Photo credit: Donkey/Hotey/Creative Commons

People not aware of the risk-information component of pharma marketing often call out the industry’s ads for their leaden language (one fine recent example: “Do not take Victoza… if you are allergic to Victoza or any of its ingredients”). And heaven knows the industry is itself to blame for some of the dopier recurring imagery in its DTC spots, like models clad in white linen riding horses on a deserted stretch of pristine beach.

But nowhere is the potential for stepping in it, so to speak, more pronounced than when a brand hires a celebrity to do its bidding. To that end, we present to you our picks for the best and worst moments in celebrity healthcare spokespersonship—plus a few more that, frankly, we can’t find anywhere on the Internet.

Skip to see the good, the bad and the conspicuous-by-their-absence.


Amy Purdy, Pfizer/unbranded (meningococcal meningitis)

Purdy is the least famous person on this list, which, given her Paralympic medal and appearances in Toyota ads and on The Amazing Race, is saying something. But her comparative lack of celebrity gives this spot an everywoman quality missing from…well, pretty much everything pharma has done in the celebrity arena. Purdy’s harrowing ordeal—she lost her kidneys and spleen and had both legs amputated below the knee—and subsequent triumphs vest this ad with the kind of dramatic arc usually seen in made-for-TV movies. In this case, that’s high praise.

Larry the Cable Guy, Prilosec

Nearly every pharma ad featuring a big-name personality is centered around a mega-sincere first-person monologue describing the personality’s experience with a given condition. Larry the Cable Guy, he of the sleeve-free shirtwear and catchphrases, doesn’t do mega-sincere—and that’s what makes him such an unlikely fit as a spokesperson. Does he suffer from the type of heartburn that Prilosec treats? Who cares? It’s about forging a connection with those who do. If that means staying in character, all the better.

Nick Jonas, Bayer/unbranded (diabetes)

Because I am old, I am not familiar with Nick Jonas’ creative output. I am told by my niece, however, that he is a talented musician who, by virtue of growing up in a town adjacent to my own, has the sort of low-key values that would resonate with me and my get-off-the-damn-lawn brethren. Either way, there’s a degree of authenticity that comes through in this ad that can’t be faked. You watch him speak plainly—and nervously—and think, “Heavens, he’s just a kid. He could be MY kid.”

Joan Lunden, Claritin RediTabs

Let’s go old-school with this choice, a late-1990s spot in which Lunden walks and talks her way through a backstage setting of some sort. Ultimately she arrives, camera-ready, on a sun-kissed gazebo (hello, metaphorical journey!). Bonus points for the shot of the kid with meticulously feathered hair that coincides with Lunden’s testimony about the product’s suitability for children.

Sally Field, Boniva

She delivers the message clearly and without artifice. She smiles. She does yoga. She is the platonic ideal of a spokesperson for a drug targeting older patients. [Insert de rigueur “we like her!” reference here.]

See the bad and the conspicuous-by-their-absence.


LeAnn Rimes, American Academy of Dermatology and National Psoriasis Foundation/unbranded (psoriasis)

Rimes says what needs to be said in order to generate the most basic level of credibility—“I have/had psoriasis and it sucks,” basically—but the spot might as well add “you’re just gonna have to take my word for it, because it’s in my contract that my exposed forearms will look all kinds of fabulous in the ad.” Do you buy it/her? I don’t.

Dr. Robert Jarvik, Lipitor

This one caused all sorts of headaches for Pfizer. Jarvik, who invented the artificial heart, is presented in the ad as a medical-type person who you’d totally turn to for medical-type advice. Here’s the thing: Dude wasn’t licensed to practice medicine, much less a cardiologist. The New York Times later reported that a body double was used for the rowing scenes in the ad. Remove all of the above from consideration, and what’s left is “older guy is still alive.” I suppose that’s the primary goal in most instances, but still.

Lipitor – Rowing from Jerry Brown on Vimeo.

Phil Mickelson, Enbrel

“Hi, I’m Phil Mickelson. I play golf. Look, that guy on the screen right there – it’s me, Phil Mickelson, playing golf. I used to have psoriatic arthritis and I took Enbrel and I’m OK now. Please route my fee to the following bank account. Thank you.”

Bob Dole, Pfizer, unbranded/erectile dysfunction

The almost aggressive eye contact with the camera, the somber piano soundtrack, the longing gaze out the office window…this remains the granddaddy of them all, and the one that launched 24 million jokes told by 24 million uncles at 24 million family get-togethers. I suppose it achieved its goal in terms of generating awareness, but the deathly seriousness of tone is as off-putting now as it was back when it initially ran. (Go to the 50-second mark)

Tim Daly, Pfizer and the American Lung Association/unbranded (pneumococcal pneumonia)

Everything about this ad makes me laugh, for entirely the wrong reasons. There’s the fantastically super-bland setting of a coffeehouse counter. There’s the less-than-warm banter between the featured couple, which suggests that the dude doesn’t know his wife/partner’s age (“I had enough last night [obtrusive sigh]. I’m a 50-something now, you know” / “Come on – 50 is the new 30!”). There’s the sudden appearance of esteemed actor Tim Daly, his willingness to share medical intimacies with complete strangers and his unexpected grasp of on-message factoids. There’s the husband dude’s exaggerated response to Daly’s line about pneumococcal pneumonia (“pneumo-WHAT?”). This is a symphony, man. This is poetry. This is everything a pharma ad should be, except credible, persuasive, smart, engaging and clear. (See what Twitter had to say about the campaign.)


Bruce Jenner, Vioxx: Was that a condition of all the Vioxx settlements? That ads featuring one of the great Olympians of any era get scrubbed from the Internet? The Dorothy Hamill one appears to have been captured for posterity, though.

Paula Deen, Victoza: As opposed to several of Deen’s other corporate partners, Novo Nordisk was very humane and decent when it parted with her following the revelation of racist comments. But they sure did a thorough job of erasing all video-centric traces of their previous relationship.

Cybill Shepherd, Lynda Carter and Kelsey Grammar, IBS: Given the impact of each spokesperson’s work – the ads were roundly praised and said to have paid huge dividends in terms of awareness/drug sales—you’d think that I could find them somewhere or other on the Internet. I cannot.

Lance Armstrong, BMS/oncology: Are we done piling on Armstrong for the vindictiveness with which he attacked anyone who claimed his cycling triumphs were enhanced by chemistry? If so, I wonder if these ads would remind us why he was such an effective spokesperson in the first place.

Barry Manilow, atrial fibrillation: Most of my morning was spent searching for traces on the web of Manilow’s “Get Back in Rhythm” campaign around atrial fibrillation. I came up empty, even when running the official URL through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I feel like I’ve let you down. I also feel like I should go get some air or something now.

See the good and the bad.