Creative audacity and innovation often take a backseat to rigid regulatory adherence in pharma advertising—but there are exceptions.
If you compare top consumer ads with top pharma ads, the difference is usually pretty glaring. But there’s a reason.
Pharma advertisers are on a different playing field. Due to the rules that govern the industry, there’s a need to be clear, precise, and medically accurate while ensuring fair balance between risks and benefits. This often leaves little room for creative storytelling or innovation. Many pharma companies simply don’t want to open themselves up to warning letters, fines, or legal action. Thus, they toe the line.
Pharma creatives, though focused on winning business, often pine for brave clients who are more willing to push the boundaries between risk and unrestrained creativity. But their creative process is often overseen by conservative gatekeepers of compliance known as the medical, legal, and regulatory (MLR) teams, who ensure that the content adheres to regulatory guidelines while representing the product truthfully and responsibly. While some MLR teams offer more flexibility and help creatives walk on the edge and be a bit bolder, the majority tend to quash any inkling of risk. If you’re looking to push boundaries, you’re going to need the former.
In the pharma industry, TV ads frequently follow a similar formula: highlight patients before and after treatment, accompanied by cheerful music and voiceovers detailing the drug’s benefits, and then seemingly racing through potential side effects at the end to adhere fair balance mandates. One example of this formula is female birth control ads. A visit to iSpot.tv and a perusal of their “Female Contraceptives TV Commercials” section reveals multiple spots adhering to this template.
But then! Then you’ll come across an outlier—an extraordinary example of what can be done in terms of storytelling. It blends humor, grace, and resolute female confidence with a visually stimulating set and a wonderful advocate. And it has rewatchability!
“Welcome to my vagina. In here, I make the rules,” Annie Murphy, star of Schitt’s Creek, states in the first line of the commercial.1 The declaration is powerful and definitive, designed to immediately gain the attention of women while simultaneously advocating for them. The actress speaks on Evofem Biosciences’ Phexxi, an innovation in female contraception—the first FDA-approved, non-hormonal, on-demand (use it when you need it) birth control method in the US. Phexxi stands out from other birth control methods due to a lack of hormonal side effects (e.g., weight gain and mood swings).
“Phexxi is a disruptor in a category that hadn’t seen innovation in decades, frankly. A lot of women had left the birth control category altogether after years of struggling with hormonal side effects, which ultimately resulted in many just tuning out and giving up on birth control,” Jillian Watkins, SVP, creative director at McCann Health New Jersey, told Pharm Exec. “Our challenge was to match Phexxi’s disruption, re-energize the category, and reawaken the dialogue between women and their HCPs/OBGYNs.”
This ad is a prime example of what can be achieved in pharma advertising. But making an ad like this requires clients to be brave, and there must be a true collaboration from top to bottom. Many larger pharma companies are more risk-averse; however, Evofem is a small, privately-held company focused on innovations in women’s health that believed in its product and approach. Perhaps that was their edge, but they didn’t break any rules. Did they?
“I come from a consumer background, and with pharma, it’s a different approach, but it’s still storytelling,” says Watkins. “We poured our passion into figuring out the unmet need we were addressing and went through over a hundred scripts, having to offer an alternate ‘welcome-to-my-domain’ script to appease broadcast networks that refused to air the word ‘vagina’ before 10 p.m. I can’t underscore enough the collaboration that was offered on set [via the MLR team, who were] really a partner in terms of how we could push it forward. Everyone had an open mind, and we had the right partner, the right director [Filip Engström], and the right set design. It was just a great experience—and the results were icing on the cake.”
In two weeks, there were 272% more visitors to the Phexxi website, 20% more script demand, and 992 million media impressions.
Be brave, people!