Pharmaceutical Super Bowl Ads Fall Flat

The Super Bowl is a major branding opportunity for marketers to raise their profile in front of an audience of more than 100 million people. But some viewers said the pharmaceutical ads addressing not-so-pleasant bodily functions during Sunday’s broadcast missed the mark.

Alongside lighthearted and uplifting spots from perennial advertisers in the food, beverage and auto industries, this year’s Super Bowl commercials included promotions for products to treat opioid-induced constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and toenail fungus.

“Given what you’re up against with all the humor, the celebrities and really big productions, I just don’t think it works that well,” said George Belch, professor of marketing at San Diego State University, of the night’s pharmaceutical ads. “The reaction from a lot of the audience is that it just doesn’t really fit.”

An ad for Valeant’s Xifaxan, which treats diarrhea, featured an animated pink intestine enjoying a football game that is interrupted by a case of irritable bowel syndrome. Jublia, also owned by Valeant and a return advertiser to the Super Bowl, enlisted former NFL players Howie Long, Deion Sanders and Phil Simms to pitch the toenail fungus medication on game day. A black-and-white ad fromAstraZeneca entitled “Envy” followed one man’s struggles with opioid-induced constipation to raise awareness for prescription treatment options.

“It’s hardly the sexiest subject when talking a high-energy sport with lots of fashionable brands,” said independent branding consultant Dean Crutchfield. While pharmaceuticals is a “tough category” to connect with consumers over, Mr. Crutchfield said the Super Bowl’s pharmaceutical advertisers “did manage to apply some wit” to their ads and infuse some personality.

The Super Bowl is a critical night for advertisers looking to reach a mass audience tuning into TV live, with expectations to deliver memorable commercials running high. Sunday’s matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers brought in an estimated average of 111.9 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched program in TV history, according to data from Nielsen provided by CBS.

“The Super Bowl has an enormous amount of impressions so we thought it was a great outlet to reach IBS-D sufferers as well as toenail fungus sufferers,” a Valeant spokeswoman said, adding the company feels good about running the commercials.

“There are certain cultural taboos that stand in the way for a healthier population. We wanted to break those taboos,” she added.

Similarly, for AstraZeneca, the Super Bowl was a way to raise awareness about OIC, a type of constipation that is a common side effect of opioids used to help manage chronic pain. “The ad absolutely delivered on what we intended. Our goal was to create and foster dialogue,” said Dave Fredrickson, vice president of specialty care at AstraZeneca.

While Mr. Fredrickson said there has been “reaction from those trying to find humor in this,” the point of the ad was to remove the stigma about talking about OIC.

The pharmaceutical industry may not have delivered the funniest ads of the night, but the companies did spark social media conversation about the ailments addressed in the spots. Since AstraZeneca’s ad aired, there have been 20,000 visits to the campaign’s website OICisDifferent.com, Mr. Fredrickson said.

Social media analytics firm Networked Insights detected nearly 20,000 online conversations about the issues of opioid-induced constipation, diarrhea/IBS, and toe fungus within the context of the ads played during last night’s game. The leading emotions detected in consumers’ reactions to the ads online were “desire” (though Networked Insights said this was primarily a sarcastic reaction), “stress” and “anxiety.” There wasn’t much conversation around the brands that invested in these ads, however. Networked Insights detected only 365 Super Bowl-related posts that mentioned Jublia, Valeant or AstraZeneca combined.

“While pharma companies have long seen success in NFL-related advertising, there’s a big difference between running awareness campaigns throughout the season versus during the Super Bowl,” said Rick Miller, vice president at Networked Insights. “Consumer expectations of ad creative are much higher—and as Nationwide learned last year—even though many serious issues warrant consumer attention, the Super Bowl is not usually the time nor the place.”

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Author: Dean Crutchfield

In an award-winning career spanning two decades, Dean Crutchfield has created, built and re-invigorated some of the world's most iconic brands.

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