In addition to physical consequences, many people suffer from social stigma associated with a health condition. This is certainly the case for people who suffer from weight issues. These people can suffer both overt and hidden social consequences, from nasty comments to rejection in social or business
situations. "Fat shaming" happens even within the medical community, with doctors much more likely to advise weight loss for patients who are overweight rather than give treatment for medical conditions (compared to patients with lower BMIs).
"Body Positivity" and "Fat Acceptance" movements are working to address some of these issues. More recently, these advocacy organizations are being joined by Pharma companies that draw attention to stigmas associated with weight management.
Novo Nordisk has recently released WEGOVY, a medication that can help patients address obesity. Connected to this release, it launched patient education and communication programs designed to bring issues with obesity out of the closet. While some of these efforts are branded, there is a very strong non-branded element that is intended to drive awareness and help people understand the effects of obesity. We applaud Novo's educational efforts.
Early DTC Efforts to Confront Condition Stigma
In the earliest days of DTC marketing, Prozac used advertising to demonstrate that medication could help patients with depression. Such marketing was revolutionary—empowering patients to talk with their doctors. Following these efforts, Zoloft and Cymbalta helped alleviate the stigma that was associated with the condition. Depression patients were educated about the root cause of their condition, which typically included factors that they could not control.
Communication from Pharma companies showed that imbalances in certain substances in the brain (called neurotransmitters) were often related to depression. It was possible for patients to work with healthcare professionals to restore the balance of brain chemicals with the aid of antidepressant
medications. By removing blame in the category, medical treatment of depression jumped significantly. This marketing helped fundamentally shift how society views mental health. It positively affected the lives of thousands of patients.
Novo Nordisk Prepares to Take on the Stigma of Obesity
In June of 2021, WEGOVY was approved by the FDA for weight management. WEGOVY acts like a GLP-1 to help lower the appetite of patients and thus enable them to lose weight. Initial marketing by Novo concentrated on an education campaign that focused on stigma featuring a series of videos, called “Obesity Voices", These videos related that, "The hardest part of living with obesity..." followed by a long series of problems that people with obesity must face. They are judged by society.
While WEGOVY is a potential solution for patients, the cost of the medication (which is high) will make it inaccessible for many. This may change if insurance around this medication is adjusted. Meanwhile, Novo's efforts may potentially guide people who are unable to afford WEGOVY to other effective solutions. And it can help to reframe the issue of weight management in our society. As of 2023, WEGOVY became one of the fastest growing patient facing medications - hitting $1B in sales per month. There are mixed voices on the benefits of this medication. The jury is still out on its longer term benefits.
Elevating Patients Out of Sorrow
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges such campaigns face is addressing the stigma without wallowing in it. Many years ago, the now famous Dove "Real Beauty" campaign began to address this weight issue as it related to fashion. The campaign rejoiced in the beauty of "Plus Size" women. And yet, the campaign was not relevant to a large percentage of this population. After all, Dove was dressing these women up as "Plus Size" models. This is a leap too far for many.
In its recent campaign, Novo is working with Queen Latifah to address this audience in a more grounded fashion. She says, “I’ve experienced being judged by others because of my weight. I know the negative effect it can have on you. But I never let that stop me, and neither should you.” (Fierce Pharma, November, 2021). She lends both star power and credibility to the effort, with communication happening on Instagram and a dedicated website. She presents her story in an authentic manner which will motivate patients.
The "It’s Bigger Than Me” campaign was launched ahead of the wider-scale marketing effort for WEGOVY. Novo partnered with CVS Health to launch an obesity support program. This is running in tandem with a physician education site, Rethink Obesity, that compliments this marketing effort. Novo believed that the synergy between these marketing efforts will spur rapid growth for WEGOVY. And they were right. Soon after launch of these patient communication efforts, patient demand for WEGOVY was outstripping supply.
There are many approaches to weight issues that patients should consider. Medication is only one of these. Lifestyle, diet, excercise, etc. play a role.
Phama communication about the issue is only part of the mix, as patient consider options and we work to overcome stigma associated with weight isssues. Novo knows that these efforts will benefit sales of its brand. However, it also promotes improved understanding of weight in our society, which is highly weight conscious. In the long run, anyone with weight issues can benefit from these efforts, whether they use the medication or not.