Pharmaceutical ad winners at the Clio Healthcare Awards.

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 16 2009 2:11 PM

Side Effects May Include …

Yes, they give out awards for pharmaceutical ads.

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Another silver Clio went to NuvaRing's ad for a contraceptive vaginal insert. Ad Report Card has previously reviewed this ad, in which synchronized swimmers illustrate the wearying repetition of swallowing a birth control pill every day. A major complaint about health care ads in general is that the mandatory recitation of a product's list of unsavory side effects is almost always accompanied by pleasant, distracting visuals—the better to steer the viewer's mind away from thoughts of abdominal cramping and "loss of scalp hair." I must congratulate NuvaRing for hitting on what is perhaps the ultimate distraction strategy: women in bikinis. But bikini-clad gals seem improperly utilized if the plan is to distract women (who are the target audience for NuvaRing ads). They should have saved this brilliant tactic for obfuscating the side effects of a prostate drug.

A bronze Clio went to an ad for VESIcare—a pill that combats bladder leaks. The people in the ad are made of copper pipes with what look to be pressure gauges where their crotches should be. By not using human actors, and by portraying untamed bladders as leaky pipes that simply need to be patched (as opposed to symptoms of the viewer's inexorable, fleshy decrepitude), the ad diffuses some of the emotion and embarrassment that go hand-in-hand with treating a bladder problem. It emphasizes the notion that a pill can offer a simple, straightforward, almost mechanical fix—which has always been the most powerful pharmaceutical promise.

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My vote for the ickiest winner of the evening? A Takeda Pharmaceuticals print ad that directs us to the Takeda-owned Web site Gout.com (and more indirectly toward Takeda's gout drug, called Uloric). The ad shows us a pair of feet. The left foot is normal. The right, instead of toes, has five emergency flares—one of them lit. This visual concept, which I'd prefer not to dwell on for longer than I have to, apparently addresses the fact that gout can cause excruciatingly painful "flares" in your feet. The target audience here is people already suffering from gout. But the imagery is so powerful that I, a non-gout-sufferer, clicked through Gout.com in a terrified frenzy, desperately hoping to eliminate my own risk factors. Goodbye, purine-rich foods!

My favorite winner? A print campaign for a hearing aid called Vibe, made by Siemens. The device wedges into the folds of your ear and comes with interchangeable covers in different bright colors and patterns. The idea is not to conceal the hearing aid, as manufacturers have done in the past, but rather to embrace the hearing aid's potential as a fashion accessory. With baby boomers entering their deafer years, I expect that hearing loss will soon become less a private shame (how mortifying that I can't hear anyone—I'll just nod and smile) and more a badge of pride (I blew these suckers out at Woodstock, man! So speak up!). The Vibe seems poised to capitalize on demographic trends. And the print executions are simple and arresting, with profile shots of attractive, confident people matching their Vibes to their outfits and personalities.

The honorary Clio went to Dr. Mehmet Oz, who became famous as a frequent guest on Oprah Winfrey's show and is now launching a syndicated daytime program of his own. I asked him if, in his medical opinion, he thinks pharmaceutical advertising is effective. "Well, people don't come to my office asking for statins," he said, invoking the generic term for cholesterol-lowering drugs. "They ask for Lipitor. So I guess the ads work in that sense."

No doubt they do. It's worth recalling, though, that former Lipitor spokesman Robert Jarvik was dismissed from Pfizer's campaign when it came to light that he wasn't a cardiologist, wasn't licensed to practice medicine, and didn't actually know how to pilot a rowing shell across a glassy lake. The moral of the story: Ads can be deceptive, whether for statins or for Shamwows.

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