Reciting litany of freakish side effects continues to plague pharma advertising.

December 9, 2009

Make it go away…I think.

This is an old story, I know. It’s about a phenomena in modern advertising that defies all logic yet persists none-the-less. I’m talking about the lengthy, often graphic, highly negative copy at the end of most pharmaceutical advertisements. You know the stuff: Shortness of breath, dizziness, bloody stool, 11-hour erections; My God, why not just stick a fondue fork in your penis? Some of this copy is so unsettling it would be considered inappropriate for TV if not for the fact it was, by law, made for TV!

Like I said: an old story. So much so, we’ve become inured to it. What was once ripe fodder for SNL parody is now perfunctory staple. A handsome, older couple walks into their bedroom for Viagra-inspired sex while the AVO describes all the bad things that might happen to them (and us). A woman suffers from depression and crippling anxiety. With one pill, she’s her old self again. Provided she doesn’t experience a seizure.

There’s something puritanical about these warnings, don’t you think? As if users of such drugs are making a deal with the devil. You want to get hard like a teenager? You want true bliss? Fine. But hellish circumstances await you. You are playing Russian roulette.

I understand why we have these warnings. Not too long ago drug companies of all shapes and sizes promised miracles of all shapes and sizes, unabated by authorities or morals for that matter. Our nation’s history is rife with magic elixirs and cure-alls. Well into the twentieth century such salacious advertisements were protected under the auspices of caveat emptor -let the buyer beware.

Yet, the solution seems just as crazy, for both consumers and advertisers. If, indeed, we have become inured to all these wacky warnings then they serve no purpose, do they? No one really thinks they’re going to experience a 4-hour boner. And even if they did do they also believe it would require medical attention? We laugh at such warnings; that is if we pay attention to them at all.

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5 Responses to “Reciting litany of freakish side effects continues to plague pharma advertising.”

  1. The concept is called “Fair Balance,” which is the requirement to disclose a prescription pharmaceutical’s unintended consequences (known as “contraindications.”) It is perhaps less a government reaction to yesteryear’s magic elixirs than it is to the newer world of direct-to-consumer Rx marketing, which confers more status on the consumer (and hence need for disclosure) and takes some of the all-encompassing power away from the doctor. As far as erections are concerned, most of us with those lasting more than four hours would be far less disposed to contact our doctors and much more likely to alert the media.

  2. SRP said

    Marks-
    Thanks for the information. My new word for the day:
    “Contraindications.”

  3. Mom101 said

    This is timely as I’m currently working on a pharma pitch and trying to wrestle 13 seconds of fair balance down to 10. I think the response from the account group was IT’S NOT UP TO YOU.

    Which…well. Yeah. Got it. Although the reality is, no one pays any attention to that stuff unless it contains words like “erection” and “anal leakage.”

  4. Dean Logan said

    I have almost 20 years of marketing experience. But just this year I started with a pharma agency. I can honestly say I have never seen the measure of hoops, approvals, conflicting direction and second guessing pharma work has to endure to get to the public.

    While it’s easy to lay blame on the pharma companies themselves you have to understand their risk. With a single letter from the FDA a company can be out hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D, manufacturing and marketing should a product get pulled or cited. This is why the stuff is generally so bad (to say nothing of the fair balance.)

    Combine a massive government bureaucracy with armies of lawyers with huge conservative corporations with millions of dollars on the line and you get what is the state of American pharma advertising.

    Until some measure of trust on both sides exists you’ll continue to see married couples in separate bathtubs.

  5. Dan said

    While I know these accounts have paid for a lot of salaries at the agencies I’ve worked at, I still hate the idea of marketing pills straight to consumer, so I’m never too upset over the restrictions advertisers are saddled with.

    What amazes me is how affective the ads still are even with all the negative stuff they have to say about themselves.

    Talk about proof that branding works. You go into a doctors office and he writes a prescription. But you say no, I’ve heard of this other drug, I want that one. Even if all the things you’ve heard are bad.

    Seems to me like pretty good evidence traditional advertising still has a decent amount of power. Same is true with insurance. I don’t know if Geico is the best option. But I’ve heard their name enough, I might go buy their coverage.

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