Humor or fear? Merck uses both to promote shingles shot Zostavax

Are you the type of consumer motivated by fear? Or are you more likely to take action based on advice from a humorous celeb? Doesn't matter--Merck & Co. ($MRK), in a push to boost vaccine sales before new competition arrives, has a shingles commercial for you.

The company is currently airing two ad types that couldn't be more different from one another. In one--dubbed "Surprise Door Knock"--NFL analyst and former quarterback Terry Bradshaw barges into the home of a trio of adults to explain with gusto the nasty effects of shingles and caution them to ask their doctors for more info.

"We all in?" he asks, as they pile their hands atop each other's with a rousing chorus of "yes!" "Good--'cause if not, we're gonna watch highlights of my career 12 hours straight. I know--talk about pain!" he says with a laugh.

Merck's other currently running spots are much more serious and somber. "Day #7 with Shingles" and "Day #18 with Shingles" each depict a sufferer trying to go about his daily life. One struggles through a dismal day at the office thanks to shingles pain, and the other gives up on a game of golf because of it, while a colleague and friend go one-on-one with the camera to express their concerns.

The one thing the ads all have in common? Graphic depictions of the condition, which can cause unsightly rashes and blistering of the skin. And, of course, pain.

GSK's Moncef Slaoui

Merck has good reason to want to reach a broad spectrum of adults with its awareness push. Fellow vaccine behemoth GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has a shingles candidate, Shingrix, coming up the pipeline, and when it's finally ready to roll, the British company expects it to be a "major market disrupter" for Merck's Zostavax, GSK vaccines head Moncef Slaoui told FiercePharmaMarketing in a January interview.

So far, the Glaxo wannabe has posted impressive results in trials, putting put 97.2% overall efficacy compared with placebo in a Phase III study. But its success in older adults is what may help it steal share from the Merck contender, analysts have predicted; in those over 70 years of age, Shingrix has demonstrated 90% efficacy, while the efficacy of Merck's jab declines in older people.

Merck isn't quite ready to cede sales, though; in 2015, it brought in $749 million for the company, making it the pharma giant's third-best seller in the vaccines department. It's been working to boost sales and awareness through DTC for a while now, launching all three of its current ads last summer. Before that, it rolled out other, similar spots, one with Bradshaw and a pair of others that track shingles patients through their daily struggles to the tune of the same ominous music.

- watch Merck's ads here, here and here

Special Report: Top 5 vaccine makers by 2014 revenue - GlaxoSmithKline - Merck

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