We are awash in drug ads these days—according to Ad Age, in 2001 Pfizer shelled out more than $2 billion on U.S. marketing alone. And yet there's a numbing familiarity to all those spots: They often seem so interchangeable that it's hard to remember which one is which. What, for example, does "the little purple pill" do again? I can't recall. I just know that a lot of serious and wise-looking mature adults seem pleased to have access to it.
Given how almost comically interchangeable such commercials have become, it's no surprise that someone would come out with a parody. What might be surprising is that a drug-maker has done it. The makers of an over-the-counter arthritis medication called Osteo Bi-Flex have a spot out that cleverly mocks the kind of ads made by … well, by companies like the makers of Osteo Bi-Flex. See the ad here, on their site.
The spot opens with a grainy old movie clip of Frankstein's monster, roaring and lumbering. "That was me," says a thoughtful and bemused voice, sounding much like the kind of reasonable grandpa we've seen in any number of drug ads, recalling his pre-medication days. But the speaker is, in fact, Frankstein's monster today, relaxing in his book-lined study. "Back then, my aching joints made it hard for me to get around," he explains. He goes on to spell out the benefits of Osteo Bi-Flex, as we see gently lit footage of him, a giant green man with bolts sticking out of his neck, doing the kinds of things Gramps does in these ads: He's doing yoga, he's playing the banjo for some children, he's gardening. (All that's missing is a moment of soft-shoe, à la Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein.) At one point, he's simply staring off reflectively into the middle distance, a shot that I think the FCC must mandate in all drug and medication ads. The spot ends with a straight product shot and a quick "Put some life back in your joints" pitch, then an image of the monster out in a field doing Tai Chi or something.
At first I wondered if this ad was some sort of hoax, but that seems not to be the case. What's impressive about it, though, is not just that it goes for a laugh, but that it does so with a subtlety that's unusual in gag ads these days—nobody gets tackled or bit in the face by a ferret. Such extreme humor can be extremely funny, but this spot benefits by not walloping the viewer with the punch line—it just sort of happens without drawing attention to itself, leaving you briefly wondering if what you're seeing is for real, some sort of mistake, or the result of one too many little purple pills on an empty stomach. It may look a little hokey to, say, the Sony PlayStation demographic, but they're probably not buying a lot of arthritis medicine anyway.
Actually, to suggest hokiness isn't quite right, since it implies that that's the only alternative to flat-out shock humor. In its own way, this ad actually does have a bit of an attitude, and that's probably a good move. As I've noted before, out there in ad-land, a lot of thought is being given to the notion of how best to target aging boomers. This spot splits the difference between treating them just like prior generations of mature consumers and treating them like Gen Y wannabes. That seems like a good approach. And if it doesn't catch on, the ad-maker can always edit in a clip of a ferret biting the monster's face.
Thanks to reader John Russell for pointing out this ad.