Creating Great DTC Advertising

If you watch TV, you see Pharma advertising.  A lot!  You’ll see long commercials that often talk about obscure diseases along with gross side effects.  You must be wondering.  Why do Pharma brands do these ads?  Simply put, they do want you to “…ask your doctor if X is right for you…”  And if you have that conversation, they hope the doctor will agree that the advertised brand is the best treatment for you.


Are they successful?

The short answer is “maybe.”  When done, well a good DTC ad can yield a 2:1 or better return on investment.  However, it is not easy to create strong advertising/campaigns for Pharma brands.  Most DTC ads do not do that well.  There are arguments for and against DTC advertising.  This discussion is covered in another posting.  This article focuses on how to make advertising that can have a positive impact on the lives of patients.

Creating great DTC advertising is not easy.  Pharmaceutical advertising is restricted by stringent regulations imposed by the FDA.  Navigating these constraints poses a challenge in crafting direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising that effectively engages target audiences and conveys a compelling message that will promote a discussion with doctors.

Does Side Effect Information Negatively Impact Ads?

Not really.  In testing, we have found that patient attention surges at the beginning of the ad, then fades quickly as information about side effects are being played.  Multiple studies (ours and academic) have show that this information has minimal impact on patient behavior.  Generally, patients know that medications have side effects and they accept them.

AIM Tests Advertising.  We Do Not Create It

Our executives have dedicated over two decades to testing DTC advertising, evaluating more than 200 ads spanning the spectrum from exemplary to really bad. We ARE NOT creatives.

Our hats are off to the agencies that develop great DTC advertising.  Facing strong headwinds, creatives agencies find ways to successfully communicate with patients.  These creatives are leveraging many of the tips found in this article to make a really great ad.

How Do We Help?

At AIM, our responsibility is to conduct research with the target patient populations to offer insights essential for the creative process. This includes gaining a clear understanding of the patient journey.  How do they first become aware of the condition and then begin to treat it?  What information do they want to aid in their consideration of treatments?  Our goal is to provide insights that will help the agency to communicate with these patients.  To develop great DTC advertising, you have to understand how patients will relate to it.

We identify key elements that should be incorporated into the advertising, such as key messages, emotional tonality, and creative imagery. Subsequently, we frequently test creatives during their development and, of course, once they are in the market to ensure they align with the intended objectives. Given the stakes involved, clients seek assurance that they are employing the most effective approach possible.

Is There A Formula For Great DTC Advertising?

No.  However, as with a good meal, some spices work and others do not.  In previous reviews, we have identified elements of advertising that does not perform well.  Our extensive testing has allowed us to identify characteristics that are most likely to work in pharmaceutical advertising.  Our observations are summarized below:

  • ENGAGE: Capture patient attention by presenting information about the disease and condition quickly.  If they cannot relate, audiences will skip the ad quickly. ENTYVIO is a great example, talking about Crohn’s disease in the first 3 seconds.  Long “reveal” should always be avoided.  The campaign developed for JARDIANCE is also highly engaging.  The creative approach can enable the brand to stand out in this highly competitive category (Type 2 Diabetes).
  • BE DISTINCTIVE: In its highly competitive category, QELBREE stands out by presenting information about nonstimulant medications.  This is a distinctive advantage over nearly all brands in the ADHD category.  The brand team for LYBALVI also created distinctive advertising for the brand.  With multiple brands advertising to Bipolar patients, LYBALVI stands out with the creative execution, tonality and messaging.
  • CLEAR MESSAGE DELIVERY: Showcase relatable situations rather than surreal imagery. While scenery in OZEMPIC‘’s ads may seem mundane, it gets key message across. Lower A1C and potentially lose weight.  Of course, the ad has a very strong “jingle” that is strongly connected to the brand.  Building the connection to the “Magic” song required a lot of media frequency (and money) but in this category that is so highly competitive, it was worth it.
  • VISUALIZE THE PROBLEM: Make the condition relatable, as demonstrated by XIAFLEX ad portraying symptoms of Dupuytren’s Contracture.  Patients will relate and it gives them an option compared to surgery.
  • EDUCATE: Draw attention to conditions not well understood by patients, following SHINGRIX‘s success in educating about Shingles and its vaccine solution.  This ad educates and will help many people to avoid this terrible condition.
  • USE DEMOS: When applicable, demonstrate how the medication alleviates the condition, as exemplified by early successes with CRESTOR and PLAVIX and more recently with TEPEZZA.  Demos are very helpful when a patient is trying to understand their condition.
  • BRANDING: Employ a strong, relevant, and ownable branding device.  This is seen in the advertising for SYMBORT, featuring a “Wolf” that is blowing down the houses of the piggies, The wolf is both an iconic brand image and a highly effective way to communicate the brand message to COPD patients.  The medication will help them to breath better.
  • BRAND VISIBILITY: Consistently display the brand name throughout the ad, adhering to this once-unusual but crucial rule will greatly increase the potential that patients will remember the brand when speaking with doctors.  VABYSMO does a great job in its ad for AMD, featuring a strong creative device (eye to the world), messaging and branding throughout the advertising.
  • EMOTIONAL TONALITY: Connect with patients by reflecting their emotions effectively; for instance, KISQALI emphasizes “Hope” and “Empowerment.”  The correct tonality will differ by category, but successful advertising always avoids “Fear.”  By contrast, depressing problem/solution ads like that for LATUDA that opens with “Sadness” generally do not perform well.  Patients tune them out.
  • TESTIMONIALS: When appropriate, leverage testimonials. KEYTRUDA does a great job in its advertising, hearing the voices of patients experiencing lung cancer. Notice, like advertising for KISQALI, the tonality of the KEYTRUDA advertising is very positive, promoting “Hope” for treatment of cancer.

What Happens When You Create Great DTC Advertising?

It helps patients to find a treatment that is “right for them.”  DTC advertising is simply a way to communicate with patients about treatments so that they can learn more when they speak with a doctor.  It can help them to understand the right questions to ask.  But the potential influence of these ads does not stop there….

They can help us to overcome stigmas and barriers to treatment.  In some cases, like Erectile Dysfunction (CIALIS) and Depression (ZOLOFT), the ads helped to change how society considered treatment.  In another category, LINZESS (for Iritable Bowel Syndrome) helped patients to get proper treatment faster.  And in some cases, this advertising can help patients to identify symptoms of a condition, hastening positive healthcare outcomes.

Great DTC Advertising Provides Clients With Strong ROI

And of course, assuming that they are good, Great DTC advertising should help to promote sales of specific treatments.

John Kenny from EVERSANA INTOUCH recently completed an analysis of the successful DTC advertising of 2023.  His company observed that while some advertising was successful, many ads missed the mark badly.  He wrote: “We know the sales impact successful brand association drives, and we know the importance of brand distinctiveness and creative elements to drive branding. In 2024 pharma marketers have an incredible opportunity to increase the effectiveness of their brand campaigns in driving awareness of treatments that can transform lives.”

With strong DTC advertising, we are certain that clients will have excellent opportunities in the future.  Especially since many of their competitors are not creating “Great DTC advertising.”  Working with AIM, you can gather insights from patients that will get you there!