Merck adds real patient to 'TRU' Keytruda TV ad

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Merck's latest TV ad for its star cancer fighter Keytruda features a real patient with advanced lung cancer.

Merck’s ad campaign for cancer fighter Keytruda just got real. For the first time, a real patient is starring in TV ads for the immuno-oncology drug.

Donna was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer more than a year ago, and in the new 90-second TV commercial, she talks about her journey with Keytruda after testing for high levels of PD-L1. Meanwhile, video plays of her going about her normal day—with her husband and children, and at work. Viewers can also find Donna's story more in-depth and watch behind-the-scenes videos with her family and friends on Keytruda’s website.

Since the ad began running on Sept. 17, media spending on national placements has topped $5.9 million, according to data from real-time TV ad tracker iSpot.tv.

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“Donna was a patient in Keynote-024, which served as the basis for the October 2016 approval of Keytruda for the first-line treatment of non-small cell lung cancer in patients with high PD-L1 expression,” a Merck spokesperson said in an email interview, adding that the first Keytruda TV ad featured an actor portrayal of a real patient’s story.

The TV ads are just one part of Merck’s ongoing broader effort for Keytruda to reach consumers, caregivers and physicians, the spokeswoman said. Additional drug information and more depth on the campaign is available online at its website and in-office materials, as well as in print and online advertising.

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The importance of a real patient in marketing may underscore the need for cancer drugmakers to balance the expectations for new immuno-oncology drugs that can be incredibly effective for some patients and not work at all for others. A recent study of oncology patients by Inspire, for instance, found a significant education gap between their general knowledge about immuno-oncology and the detailed specifics of how the drugs work. The study author noted the importance of laying out the details and differences between specific patients in part to "ultimately soften the blow if and when the treatment doesn’t work." Last year, Bristol-Myers Squibb faced a backlash for its Opdivo TV ads, spurred by a New York Times op-ed penned by a man whose wife died of lung cancer after failing to respond to the therapy. In the op-ed, he cast the ads as "misleading and exploitive." 

Keytruda is approved for multiple cancer uses, and it most recently picked up a nod in gastric cancer. The treatment is leading the way in the all-important lung-cancer space after winning first-line approvals both as a monotherapy and in tandem with chemo.