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.

"Imagine," said one attendee of the first-ever Clio Healthcare Awards, held in Manhattan on Friday night, "that you're making a TV commercial for a new Nike sneaker. But you aren't allowed to talk freely about the sneaker. Instead, you have to show a pair of bare feet, and then tell the viewer he can solve his barefoot-ness by asking his doctor about Nike. That's the challenge for most pharmaceutical advertising."

In fact, the challenges don't end there. To further the analogy: The barefoot viewer might not remember which shoe brand he was supposed to ask about. The doctor might decide he'd rather prescribe a pair of Adidas. And, upon arriving at the shoe store, the sneakerless man might discover that his insurance plan only covers Reeboks.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

None of these obstacles have stopped pharmaceutical companies from spending billions of dollars each year on ads. In the first quarter of 2009, only the automotive and fast food categories spent more, while Hollywood and wireless phone service providers spent less. In fact, there is so much advertising touting the efficacy of pills these days that some researchers suspect it may be making the placebo effect stronger. To watch a network news broadcast on a weekday evening is to be made aware of pills that treat sleep disorders, sexual dysfunctions, balky bladders, and countless other maladies—be they physical or mental, serious or trifling, well-established or newly minted.

The advertising creatives who write these ads deserve to win silly industry awards at least as much as their peers who write ads for sports cars and flat-screen TVs. But it's nearly impossible for pharmaceutical ads to achieve victories in the regular Clios competition. Pharma ads face special regulation from the FDA, their subject matter is often inherently grave, and half their airtime is eaten up by lists of gnarly-sounding side effects. They're at a disadvantage from the get-go. It's only fair to rank them against their own kind.

Enter the Clio Healthcare Awards. A sort of Paralympics of advertising, taking the form of a cocktail party occasionally interrupted by trophy presentations. The bartenders wore medical scrubs. The vodka drinks were labeled "flu shots." And sobering thoughts about profit-sapping health care reforms were set aside—perhaps because the pharma executives in the crowd were aware of the ongoing, industry-wide drug price hike.

Among the big winners in this year's inaugural event (click here to see a complete list):

The top prize in the television category went to Ambien's "Silence Your Rooster" campaign, in which insomniacs are shown silently confronting an ominous cock in the wee hours of the night. These 15-second spots won awe and respect less for their content than for the content that they're missing. They never once mention the product's intended benefit or even its name, instead directing curious viewers to the Web site SilenceYourRooster.com. Because no medical claims are made, the ads sidestep FDA requirements regarding disclosure of side effects. Which in Ambien's case include a few doozies: hallucinations, sleep-eating, and an increased risk of suicide.

Ad execs I spoke to marveled at how brave Ambien was to spend money airing ads that contain no product name or logo. I agree it's a gamble. And I think the rooster metaphor is effective, if facile. But given that they've freed themselves from all those constraints that limit other prescription drug ads (for good reason—it's no surprise they're less than eager to talk up the hallucination and suicide angles), shouldn't these Ambien spots be every bit as funny, clever, and memorable as the better ads for traditional consumer products? Because they're not. And my one-word review is: yawn.

A silver Clio, in the "Devices and Diagnostics" category, went to two GE television spots for medical equipment. In one, a doctor travels to rural India, carrying along a compact electrocardiogram machine in his briefcase. In the other, a man and woman in a small Chinese village meet cute when she reads his X-rays to the strains of an enchanting backing track by Chinese pop singer Cao Fang. Both ads are harmless. Even a little bit charming. But I disagree with the Clios' categorization here: These seem less like ads designed to sell electrocardiogram and X-ray machines, and more like feel-good, corporate-image spots for GE. (And I would note that the bar is set fairly low for these: A previous GE ad—featuring sexy coal miners—was among the more offensive ads I've ever seen.)

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.

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.