Unfortunate DTC Advertising

The Superbowl is exciting!  It is quite natural to see provocative advertising.  Including ads for lip gloss, “Duck Plump.”  Some creative, living perhaps in LA or NYC, came up with this stuff and they may win an award at Cannes.  However, we never see this type of thing in Pharma.  Or do we?  We witnessed unfortunate DTC Advertising during this Superbowl.

The DTC advertising in question came as a surprise.  It was a very exciting game.  Then in the third quarter, as the Chiefs were battling against the 49er’s, we were struck by a very strange ad.  Spoiler alert, it was for Pfizer (although you would never guess if you were not in the industry).  The opening scenes feature paintings and statues, including figures like Hippocrates, Copernicus, and Einstein, all singing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” The twist? Portraits of Pfizer founders Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart appeared prominently, singing along. “Who are these guys” we wondered.

How Does Pfizer Relate to Science

We had to check Wikipedia to know the tale of the the two Charles.  While they recruited many scientists, their primary focus was on financial success.  Action in the ad suggests some silly connection with famous scientists.  While Pfizer does feature its scientists and development, you would have to know a lot about the company to make the connection.   We suspect that Pfizer employees may find the ad uplifting.  However, it is not so clear that it will work with other target audiences.

The ad’s tonality is peculiar, commencing with cheerful and whimsical scientist imagery.  It can evoke a positive emotional response or “Enjoyment” among viewers.  That could work well for a Pepsi commercial.  However, it is incongruous for Pharma and cancer treatment. The serious and personal nature of these subjects raises concerns about a significant tonal mismatch.

As the montage progresses, the ad reveals its message: “Here’s to Science” and “Here’s to the next fight,” aiming to highlight Pfizer’s success with the Covid-19 vaccine and honor scientists’ heroism. The juxtaposition of Pfizer’s founders with revered figures like Einstein comes across as inappropriate. The ad then transitions to a scene of a young girl undergoing cancer treatment, linked to the suggestion of Pfizer’s proactive stance against cancer. The call to action, #LetsOutdoCancer.com, while commendable, feels insincere in its presentation. We are left asking, who truly benefits from this narrative?

Did It Work At All?

Given the issues we are raising, we honestly wondered if any research was done before releasing this ad.  Fortunately the company (System 1) conducting testing on this ad released information about that testing.  In an article they report that the ad “scores 3.8-Stars, which was enough to make it part of our “winning 11” team of the most effective Super Bowl spots this year.”  Is this an impartial applause for the ad?  We think not.  Their results were why the ad was “green lighted” for this event – and obviously that was a big decision.  Other impartial agencies including Kantar (known for excellent copy testing) did not find that this ad was strong.  There is a big difference in the quantitative methodology used by System 1 compared with other leaders in the industry.  System 1 puts huge emphasis on positive emotional response to advertising (sometimes ignoring other key elements like branding).  We could guess that viewers found the ad enjoyable and that maybe it even made them happy.  However, these are not emotions that relate well to Pharma.  And certainly not to cancer treatment.  In the oncology category, patients relate best to emotions of “Hope” and “Empowerment.”  KEYTRUDA and KISQALI have created advertising that places an excellent emphasis on these emotions.

Our Approach To Advertising Evaluation

AIM consistently tests creative endeavors.  We’ve done research on over 200 Pharma ads.  We have identified the components of effective Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) advertising.   Based on our testing, we have established a set of best practices that help us in the evaluation of advertising:

  • The first step is capturing the audience’s attention, crucial for preventing disengagement. Based on the quirky nature of this ad, it likely garnered audience attention. Our analysis, supported by recent data released from EDO research, suggests that the ad did engage the audience.
  • The second requirement for strong DTC advertising is that it establish good “branded memorability.” This means that when the audience sees it, they can tie it to the brand, or in this case the company advertised.  Despite achieving good engagement levels we doubt this ad achieved brand connection. We have not tested it, but this should have been identified in copy testing.
  • Effective advertising should convey a clear message. Pfizer’s likely intention was to communicate positive societal contributions and celebrate its scientists.  Pfizer has a good reason to be proud of its contributions and the work of its scientists.  However amidst the overwhelming montage, this message appears lost.

How Will The Ad Perform With Target Audiences?

The data suggests that at a high cost (at least $10MM), the ad drew viewer attention. However, the pivotal question remains: does this attention foster positive impressions of the brand/company? To answer this question we should consider the key audiences and the desired outcome of the advertising:

  1. The general population, who admired the company so much during the pandemic.  Now they condemn it for taking profit on the vaccines it creates.  A goal of this ad would be to turn that impression around, especially by emphasizing the contributions made by its scientists.  Research conducted by AIM in 2021 showed that impressions of Pfizer were plummeting from its highwater mark during Covid.  We recommended that it highlight the contributions its scientists were making to society.  So, according to our research, they got the message exactly right.  Unfortunately, the delivery missed the mark.
  2. Patients who use its medications, especially for the treatment of cancer.  Pfizer can position itself as a leader in the fight against cancer.  Unfortunately as noted above, these patients are unlikely to respond positively because it has the wrong tonality.  They may even find a “happiness” tonality offensive.  By taking a respectful and “Empowering” approach, advertising for KEYTRUDA is very effective.
  3. Healthcare Professionals who interact with Pfizer in the use of its treatments.  They are a secondary target.  However, we know that they were tuned into the game as well, and they are considering treatments used in the category.  More than anybody, they probably recognized the famous scientists in the category (i.e. Hippocrates).  They probably also understood the rather odd mixture of these scientists with the founders of Pfizer.  And unfortunately, like us, they may have found the presentation of the young cancer patient distasteful.  We do not believe that this DTC marketing could improve their impressions of Pfizer.

What Are Others Saying About The Ad?

We have not tested this ad, so while we have opinions we cannot say with absolute certainty that it will fail.  However, we have seen published data and heard from other researchers who have tested the ad.  Their findings confirm our general impressions.  Post-Super Bowl, the New York Times categorized Pfizer’s ad as a “Flagrant Misstep,” positioned worse than “Inoffensive but Forgettable.” The Times wrote:  “The drug company invokes a long history of scientists, including Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, to celebrate its 175-year existence. Visually inventive, but there’s no vaccine against overreach.”  While we do not think that they are experts in the field of DTC Marketing, in this case we think they got it right.