#Pharma "Disease Awareness" Ads: Are They "Stealthy" Fear Mongering Set Pieces? | Pharmaguy's Insights Into Drug Industry News | Scoop.it

Welcome to the world of unbranded [“disease awareness”] ads, a stealthy and lightly regulated form of drug marketing focused on educating the public about a health condition — which the pharma company just happens to sell a product to treat. The ads aren’t required to disclose side effects. Instead, they often direct patients to a website about the disease. Click on a few links and you’ll likely land on a page promoting the branded treatment.


The tack has fluctuated in popularity over the years, but it seems to be on the upswing, perhaps in part because public distrust of the pharma industry is so high that drug makers are scrambling for ways to promote their products more subtly, analysts said.


Two unbranded campaigns — Mylan’s allergy awareness ads (e.g., read “Mylan TV Spot for "FaceYourRisk.com": Doesn't Mention Risk of Not Being Able to Afford EpiPen!”) and Merck ads about vaccines (e.g., read “GSK's Whooping Cough Vaccination Campaign Needlessly Vilifies Grannies!”) — both ranked among the top 10 most expensive TV drug ad campaigns last month, according to data from the ad tracking firm iSpot.tv


Other unbranded campaigns have also made headlines recently: The marketer of a drug for opioid-induced constipation aired one during the Super Bowl, stirring controversy (read “Super Bowl DTC Drug Ads Spark Backlash!”). Another unbranded ad, from the maker of a heart failure drug, drew sharp condemnation from cardiologists who called it manipulative and shameful.


All told, the drug industry has spent $171 million on unbranded ads so far this year, up 15 percent over the same period last year, according to the media research firm Nielsen.


That’s only a fraction of the industry’s total ad spending; last year drug makers spent a whopping $6 billion, mostly on branded ads that explicitly promote their products.


If you watch enough unbranded drug ads, you’ll notice a theme: they’re often pretty ominous in tone.


In Mylan’s anaphylaxis awareness ad, a young woman is shown with alarming red splotches all over her skin after accidentally ingesting peanuts. She gasps and collapses as her panicked friends try to help (read “OMG! A White Person is in Shock!”).


Those are tame compared to a recent interactive digital ad from Boehringer Ingelheim designed to raise awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for which the company sells a treatment. Another recent unbranded ad, also from Boehringer Ingelheim, relies on eerie silence to raise awareness of a fatal lung disease for which the company sells a treatment.


It’s no coincidence that these ominous ads are unbranded, said John Mack, who has tracked many of them in his digital newsletter Pharma Marketing News.


If you’re a drug maker, “you don’t want to attach a dark image to the brand — so you’re attaching this dark imagery to a medical condition instead,” Mack said. That leaves room for a branded ad that shows “the bright side: that there’s this product that can save the day.”