10 Riskiest Ads

Risk is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, an ad can push the envelope in terms of regulatory and still spur productive dialogue. Other times, a chancy ad backfires. Here’s a countdown of 10 risk-taking ads—five that our industry experts thought truly succeeded, followed by five that might have done better. It’s our shout-out to brands that took a risk. Deborah Dick-Rath reports

All ad reels courtesy Competitrack

Last year for our DTC cover story, we celebrated the Best DTC Ads Ever—10 campaigns that broke through the clutter and stood out for their uniqueness. We pointed out that these ads were usually tied to a patient insight that a creative team had leveraged to connect the brand to its audience in a memorable way. In order to determine that list, we surveyed industry experts to find out which ads in the 16-year history of DTC they thought were the very best.

Anyone who works in DTC understands that it is more challenging than most advertising categories. The regulations and restrictions can be truly crushing to a creative idea when it gets to the executional stage. Of course, everyone on the team—at the agency and the brand—experiences the debilitating atmosphere and often has to work hard to maintain positive momentum through to approval and campaign deployment.

In view of this special environment, this year, we want to share a roundup of the Riskiest DTC Ads Ever—campaigns that our experts think successfully “push the envelope” in terms of regulatory risk. But risk is a double-edged sword—while sometimes it really works, other times, not so much. We found the ads identified by our respondents fell into those two camps.

We also learned from our survey respondents that many of last year’s Best ads—such as Merck/Vytorin, Novartis/Lamisil and Boehringer-Ingelheim/Spiriva—were also thought to be among the Riskiest. What’s more, the Riskiest ads were likely ones that the teams had to battle through the system to launch.

We see once again that the Best/Riskiest campaigns cluster a bit in mass categories such as allergies and depression, but new categories also emerged this year, including multiple sclerosis, smoking cessation and RA. Animation repeats as a memorable campaign hook—three of the 10 Riskiest ads are animated. Although last year’s Best list reflected the use of many anthropomorphic icons (i.e., bees, elephants and butterflies,) none of this year’s ads did so. There were no celebrity endorsements, either.

Given the regulatory hurdles to develop memorable advertising that helps brands create productive patient-physician dialogue, we send a shout-out to the brands that took a risk. Here are your colleague’s 10 picks for the Riskiest DTC Ads Ever, five that our industry experts thought truly succeeded, followed by five that…might have done better:

10. Abilify: “Bathrobe.” This campaign from Otsuka broke through in the complicated, highly regulated depression category and helped patients understand what actions they could take to feel better. Sue Manber, EVP strategic planning at Digitas, noted, “It took a brave client to use animation for a serious condition and deploy it in a highly appropriate way.”

9. Zyrtec: “Pollen.” This decade-old Pfizer campaign from Deutsch is remembered for pushing the envelope with its black-and-white mid-century look. While its risks were more artistic/cultural than regulatory, it both succeeded and stood out in a highly competitive category.

8. Prevacid: “Heartbreak Hotel.” Another animated spot, this one used the ghost of Elvis Presley to drive its unforgettable imagery and storyline. One of our experts commented, “I really like this spot and still remember it, years later.” Another noted, “It would never get approved today!”

7. Gilenya: “Take This!” Novartis and Draftfcb Health scored with this campaign, which successfully took a risk—especially in terms of its deployment through social media. The campaign’s positive attitude and creative messaging also made it risky, but memorable.

6. Zoloft: “Dot.” This Best ad was recognized again this year—it was named three out of 10 times for its riskiness and its effectiveness. Mike Rutstein, president of Strikeforce, noted its “unexpected empathy through illustration,” while Doug Welch, SVP at McCann, stated, “It could have been perceived as trivializing depression, but it actually de-stigmatized it.”

5. Chantix: “Testimonial/Mike.” For legal reasons, it’s often very risky to use testimonials, so this campaign, which completely relied on them, took a big risk. But some of our respondents didn’t think it was effective, stating, “The use of real people sounds compelling, but in execution the ads are boring, uninspiring. They could’ve taken the brand to a much different place.”

4. Clarinex: “Outer Space.” This follow-up brand to Claritin missed the mark with its “announcement” ad, our experts said. One DTC market researcher noted that when doctors were shown the ad message of “true relief,” they were appalled, even commenting,  “What do you mean, was Claritin not true?” Another respondent called it a “terrible execution into a next drug.”

3. Levitra: “Football.” Bayer’s entry in the lively ED market a few years ago was deemed a risk that failed primarily because the creative execution was not too subtle—and, thus, backfired on the brand. Or, as one respondent put it, “Are you kidding me?”

2. Simponi: “Shoes.” This J&J brand took a risk with its visuals, but unlike the unsubtle Levitra, Simponi was too subtle. The opening and closing of the ad offered brand information, but none of the visuals seemed connected to the story. “Too mysterious,” claimed one of our experts.

1. Rozerem: “Abraham Lincoln and Beaver.” This campaign was mentioned more than any other in the survey as a failed risk. Respondents stated that itsmemorable creative just didn’t sell the brand. Frank Chipman, VP at Lieberman Research, said, “It was a creative’s fantasy, but lacked any real message.” Erica Yahr, SVP strategic planning at McCann, noted, “Not effective. Period.”

Creating and gaining approval of an impactful DTC campaign is hugely challenging to brand teams and their agencies. The agency writers and art directors that work on pharmaceutical campaigns have to operate within such strict guidelines that is can be very frustrating. However, like a well-written brief, many agency creatives consider the restrictive challenges to be liberating. Brand teams also have to function within the boundaries of their organization’s medical/legal/regulatory rules while trying to deliver timely campaigns to achieve marketing goals. And there are risks at every turn.

We appreciate the “risky” ads that push the envelope and succeed. They illuminate insights, connect with patients, overcome regulatory challenges and are effective in the marketplace. Today, Abilify and Gilyena exemplify this achievement.

Of course, we can learn a lot about DTC from the campaigns that fail, too. Rozerem’s DTC is memorable and broke through the clutter—but in the end, was not effective because it didn’t sell the brand. The insight of missing your dreams was not quite turned into a problem that the Rozerem brand benefit could solve. As Lieberman Research’s Frank Chipman noted, “Where was the branding? This ad goes to show that memorable ads are meant to sell, not meant to just be remembered or win awards.”

Risk and win, or risk and fail—at least these DTC advertisers were in the game. Using validated strategic processes to evaluate and analyze DTC at every stage of development can mitigate risk—but those processes can’t create a breakthrough idea or save a bad one. As our media channels continue to become fractionated and the “mix” is diluted, the creative idea remains the most important asset of all—one for which it is well worth taking a risk.

Deborah Dick-Rath is the president of Epic Proportions.