Concept Diagnosis

Taking the pulse of the worst & best in healthcare advertising

Tag: Pharma-cheesical

Lions and Tigers and Metaphors, OH MY!

The most used metaphors in the history of pharmaceutical advertising come from the animal kingdom, and probably none more so than the members of the genus Panthera: the tiger and the lion.

What’s not to love about these feline icons? They’ve been featured prominently in ancient mythology and folklore for thousands of years. They appear globally on many flags, coats of arms and as mascots of sports teams (especially if you live in Detroit). They are majestic animals and powerful, fierce hunters. You can find “a tiger in your tank” (Exxon), in your bowl of cereal (Frosted Flakes) or roaming the sales materials of representatives in doctors’ offices. Here are just five examples.

Tygacil2007TYGACIL (tigecycline), a broad-spectrum hospital anti-infective from Wyeth, was approved in 2005. The launch ad depicts TYGACIL as a tiger, “A POWERFUL NEW PARTNER”, walking alongside a doctor through a hospital corridor. Obviously the doctor now has a manageable, yet fierce, antibiotic to fight resistant pathogens. While I don’t condone the use of endangered species in pharma ads, I could see the lure of reinforcing TYGACIL’s name recognition with a tiger at launch.

ValcyteVALCYTE (valganciclovir) is prescribed for the prevention of cytomegalovirus (CMV) disease in high-risk adult and pediatric transplant patients. In this multi-page ad, one of the indicated pediatric patients is depicted as a tiger cub, helpless and possibly within the sights of a predator. “WHEN THE RISK IS HIGH”, you need “THE POWER TO PROTECT”. We get it, VALCYTE is now the tiger because there is no fiercer animal than a tiger or lion momma protecting her young…’nuff said! But it’s still just a stock shot of tigers as I’m waiting for Marlin Perkins (google him, kiddies) or Jeff Corwin to narrate this documentary.

In the pharma world, 2009 must have been the Year of the Lion because we were introduced to two lion campaigns (not be confused with Cannes Lions).Combigan

Allergan’s COMBIGAN (brimonidine/timolol) treats pressure in the eye caused by glaucoma. The brand is depicted in their ad as a lion comfortably sitting on a couch (probably watching Born Free…google that too, kids!) next to a patient reading the Global Times. “POWER YOU CAN BE COMFORTABLE WITH”, until you get mauled to death in the comfort of your own living room or by a tiger in the hospital cafeteria.

Nucynta10.2009The creative brief for painkiller NUCYNTA (tapentadol) probably had two words leaping off the page for the creative teams: gentle strength. That would explain why we see a Casanova King of the Jungle with a rose in his mouth ready to lure you into a lascivious tango or to be his dinner.Humira2012

Abbott, makers of HUMIRA (adalimumab) turned the tables in 2012 and made these animals a vicious threat as we see a leopard coming out of the darkness eyeing us like a gazelle with gout. No headlines are necessary here because in healthcare advertising no one can hear you scream (unless you see an ad using red boxing gloves, but that’s a topic for another article). Turn the page and you can hear HUMIRA shouting, “Honey, I Shrunk the Cats!” as a tiger, a lion and the leopard now conveniently fit in your palm but still large enough to gnaw the fingers from your hand.

Those were just a few examples, but there are many more. We haven’t had any lion sightings in a while, but those big cats are lurking out there, waiting to be used as an icon for your next client. Fight the urge and make these metaphors extinct.

My Knight In Tainted Armor


The creative team is gathered at the Round Table. Before them is their quest, two words written on a brief: POWERFUL PROTECTION. Where for art thou, Sir Metaphor??

What’s not to like about Knights? They fought bravely, wore cool protective armor, held shields branded with their own personal logos, they jousted and lived by a moral code of chivalry. Knights are the epitome of “powerful protection”. There are many drugs on the market that also offer powerful protection. “Hey, let’s use an ancient medieval icon to represent our modern therapy”, said too many agency creatives (and probably a few brand managers).

Velcade-2008How will this icon represent the brand? Will it make an emotional connection with physicians and be imprinted in their minds and hearts or will it quickly say “powerful protection” for a fleeting moment until a journal page is turned or an iPad screen swiped?

VELCADE (multiple myeloma) has its purple knight poised for battle with rays of hope beaming through a rather large transparent shield. If you look closer, it may not be a knight at all, but rather a member of the riot police about to beat down an insurgent crowd. Regardless, a physician will only spend 1-3 seconds taking it all in, so for practical reasons, let’s say it’s the Purple Knight.

There is promise on the horizon (note the rising sun) with DEXILANT (GERD). This knight, glistening in highly polished armored, proudly displays anDexilant2012 infographic shield. Take heed, your strongest icons are singular in focus. Here, the DEXILANT knight is attempting multiple messages, “power, day and night.” Just to make sure the reader gets it, “power” is highlighted in bold lime green in the headline. And in case you don’t associate knights with heartburn, the indication is presented in 700pt type. My only question is, “Where is the fire-breathing GERD dragon?”

REYATAZ (HIV) gives you double protection with two layers of knighthood, but only if you’re wearing a branded sweater.


PerjetaEvery knight knows that you are vulnerable if you leave the castle wearing only your “chain mail” (the layer of tiny metal ring linked together in a mesh pattern). Right before your eyes, PERJETA (breast cancer) transforms gold mesh into gold-plated armor for gold standard protection!

If you have a gun (or a sword) to your head and have to use a metaphor, a rule of thumb is do something to it to make it unique, so that it stands apart from its clichéd predecessors. Does it make the concept any less pharma-cheesical? No, but at least it won’t be a carbon copy of another brand’s used icon, which is what INCIVEK (Hep C) did with their knight.

Incivek2012INCIVEK supersized their jousting knight with “SPEED, POWER and PRECISION” by putting him on a high-tech motorcycle, lance in hand and branded cape flying, having just pierced and destroyed a Hepatitis C cell. Is it memorable compared to other knight icons? Yes. Is it still a cliché? Yes.


The motorcycle jousting scene

knightriders_ver2_xlgWhile I’m still not a fan of this concept, there is a special place in my heart for this particular icon because it makes an emotional connection with me. Why? It takes me back to 1981, to a movie from my youth that I fell in love with but haven’t seen in decades. If you like Arthurian legends, then you must check out Knightriders, directed by George Romero and starring a young Ed Harris as the leader of a group of traveling knights who compete in jousts on motorcycles at Renaissance Fairs. It was a current take on Camelot, although 1981 is already feeling like the Middle Ages. I’ve always wondered if the creative team was “inspired” by this movie, with its knights on bikes, and if I was the only one this icon made a human connection with? Want to use metaphors? “We are the Knights who say NO!” (Monty Python & The Holy Grail reference).

You may have a mild case of the Pharma-cheesical

Is your latest concept depicting boxing gloves to address your brand’s “one-two punch” strategy? Do you see hour-glasses when you think of time or lions when you envision power?  Well I’m sorry to inform you that these are just a few of the signs and symptoms of the “Pharma-cheesical” virus.

Pharma-cheesical is a medical term referring to the cliches of healthcare advertising that causes communication to be bland and anemic, lacking personality or insights. This is often accompanied by the use of rehashed, ridiculous metaphors that have no emotional connection to the patient or physician. The Pharma-cheesical virus may also cause you to depict patients gardening, kayaking or taking relaxing strolls on a beach…because all seniors on therapy partake in these activities every day.

We’ve all been afflicted by this creatively insidious virus maybe once or twice in our careers. It’s very contagious, often spread by clients who are uncomfortable with provocative ideas and doctors in market research who don’t believe in marketing but whose comments are taken as law. Young creative teams are also susceptible to Pharma-cheesical while searching for inspiration on stock image sites.

There is no preventative vaccine. Washing your hands with soap and water several times a day won’t help. The only way to protect yourself from the Pharma-cheesical virus is EDUCATION. Know the signs and avoid them, pure and simple and boost your conceptual immune system by understanding what great looks like and why.



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