When Should Pharma Ads Go Unbranded?

by Amanda Fiore

It is fair to say that pharmaceutical marketing is the most regulated category in the ad space, from internal legalities to abiding by the rules and conditions set forth by the FDA. Each time a TV commercial promoting a drug appears on screen mentioning its name and indication, consumers get bombarded with a lengthy list of unpleasant side effects, often resulting in viewer apprehension.

As you could have guessed, this transparency we see on our TV screens is mandated by the FDA and known as fair balance. Fair balance basically forces pharma advertisers to present the drug’s negative information alongside the positive, including side effects and other conditions that make taking that drug risky. However, there is an alternative approach for pharma marketers when it comes to fair balance and that is known as unbranded advertising. Over the past few years we have seen pharma budgets for unbranded ads increase, as FDA regulations get tighter and the American public grows weary of the pharmaceutical giants and their rising drug prices.

What goes into a pharma company’s decision to run an unbranded ad versus a branded one? There are multiple factors that can help inform a brand team’s decision. For example, the population size and awareness of undiagnosed patients of the condition the brand treats; the amount of fair balance a product requires; having available content or building a disease awareness site to drive consumers to learn more; or to prime a future branded message.

Unbranded ads are often education and disease awareness-heavy with the goal to prompt people to speak with their doctor to seek treatment for the condition your drug is approved to treat, but there is no mention of any drug or product within the ad. By educating consumers about the symptoms of the condition, pharma advertisers are hoping to spur an action specifically to get people into their doctor’s offices to ask about the condition and ask about their available treatment options. Unbranded ads work well if there is still a large population of undiagnosed patients for the condition your product treats, as there are still an untouched patient base to capture. However, the downside to unbranded ads is that when they push consumers to go their HCPs to discuss possible treatment options for their condition, they will not be going in asking for your product by name.

The most commonly used tactic for getting patients to walk into their physician office is through fear. Many unbranded pharma ads play upon consumer fear by portraying the frightening results of not having the medication that they need. We all remember Mylan’s unbranded TV campaign for their product, EpiPen. This ad illustrated the alarming reality of experiencing a life threatening allergic reaction without treatment, the EpiPen. Unbranded ads elicit different emotional responses than branded ads, causing people to act out of fear. Critics of unbranded ads note that these ads make consumers more informed about the problem, the disease, and less aware about the solution, the drug. They believe unbranded ads need to point consumers to a solution through a strong call-to-action and relevant creative directed at the right target.

Many pharma companies share the same call-to-action during unbranded ads, to visit their disease awareness website to learn more. If a brand has available content or the means to build new education-based microsite, they can direct patients to the site to learn more about the condition discussed in the unbranded ad, while the branded product that treats the condition is a few clicks away.

Also since unbranded ads are lightly regulated and do not require fair balance, they become a cheaper media buy for pharma companies. Brands with hefty fair balance obligations can opt for 15 or 30 second TV spots instead of a 60, as there is no need to allocate up to 30 seconds of the 60 second ad to just list side effects of the drug.

Lastly unbranded ads can help prime the market for an upcoming branded message. An unbranded ad is used to raise awareness about a specific medical condition, carving out space for a branded ad to follow offering a bright side or solution to the problem that has been depicted through the unbranded disease awareness content. This is most successful in cases where the drug company promoting the unbranded message makes the only or most used treatment for the indication discussed.

There is much to consider when deciding if an unbranded campaign is right for a specific pharmaceutical company, but if the timing is right it has the potential to be more efficient and effective than branded campaigns.