Anthropomorphic animals, dancing bladders and mucus monsters, oh my! The pharma industry seems awash in animated characters representing drug brands. And while it certainly isn't the only industry using spokes-characters to market its products, the combination of health conditions and "cartoon" characters has drawn both criticism and approval. Are they overly cute characters that trivialize serious conditions, or are they effective visualizations that help explain complex conditions and treatments?
Whichever side you come down on, studies have generally shown that spokes-characters are effective marketing tools. Advertising Age notes in its Encyclopedia of Advertising that "Spokes-characters are an important and highly effective tool in modern advertising practice, appearing in almost 8 percent of all ad campaigns."
Regarding pharma specifically, a study published in the Journal of Advertising Research reported, "Evidence from secondary data indicates that brands using spokescharacters perform better than average in recall and in brand-association tests."
Kartik Pashupati, who wrote that paper--"Beavers, Bubbles, Bees, and Moths: An Examination of Animated Spokescharacters in DTC Prescription-Drug Advertisements and Websites"--in 2009 when he was a professor at Southern Methodist University, is now a director at Research Now. While he has not done any formal study updates, he spoke to FiercePharmaMarketing recently about what he discovered then and its relevance still today.
"Broadly speaking, anytime you're talking about something abstract or complex, anything you can do to make it more concrete or more relatable is useful," he said. "… Animated spokes-characters serve multiple purposes. They establish continuity, but also establish differentiation, and can make it easier to identify what the product does."
In the case of serious and sensitive health conditions, spokes-characters can demonstrate "allegorically, figuratively or metaphorically" how a product works--and possibly better than an actor might. Pashupati pointed out the case of Zoloft and its Sad Blob characters, which could have been construed as "inappropriate or even misleading if they had shown real people who have depression taking anti-depressants and suddenly looking happy." (And spokes-characters, unlike some actors and celebrities, will never go off the rails, make unrealistic demands or show up late for photo shoots.)
When asked why consumers seem to hate pharma characters, Pashupati said, "I don't think people hate the characters themselves. I think they don't like pharma ads in general, … and some of that gets transferred to the characters."
Here, the FiercePharmaMarketing staff takes a look at some of our favorite DTC and OTC pharma spokes-characters from over the past decade and profiles them, in no particular order or ranking. -- Beth Snyder Bulik (email | Twitter) and Emily Wasserman (email | Twitter)