Fake patient story wins a real-life marketing award? Discuss

I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV. That approach has put pharma in the doghouse before. But now, here's a new question. What about, "I'm not a patient, but I play one in a promo campaign for doctors"?

As the Pharma Marketing Blog reports, one of the few industry campaigns to snap up a gold Lion at the Lions Health ad festival this week was an Australian effort from McCann Health. Subject: Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) anti-inflammatory drug Simponi. Approach: patient storytelling, a big buzz-phrase these days in pharma advertising.

Thing is, the patient whose story features in the Simponi "Cate" campaign wasn't real. The story was a well-crafted visual narrative designed to show how easy it is for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers to dose themselves--something that's not pleasant for users of some RA therapies. And to illustrate how well it works, of course.

McCann Health's video campaign depicted a month in life of a fictional Simponi patient, Cate Jackson.--Courtesy of McCann Health

McCann described the video campaign--formed from hundreds of photographs--as a depiction of a month in the life of "a Simponi patient, Cate Jackson." Among those hundreds of pics, only one featured Cate injecting herself with Simponi, as a visual representation of how quick and simple it is. But as the Pharma Marketing Blog points out, there's a straightforward, discreet disclaimer at the end of that video. "This patient story is fictional. A model was used in the photographs."

Full disclosure. But is that enough? If drugmakers plan to rely on "patient stories" to illustrate various advantages of their products, do the stories need to be nonfiction--real, not imagined? Or can a visual metaphor like McCann's campaign, with its one actual treatment-specific shot, be perfectly valid if the patient doesn't exist?

Let's cast back several years, to an ad campaign for Pfizer's ($PFE) cholesterol fighter Lipitor. TV commercials featured Dr. Robert Jarvik, who invented the artificial heart, rowing a racing skiff while talking up the benefits of the drug. Come to find out, Dr. Jarvik wasn't a practicing physician. He had no real rowing skills, either; the rower was a stunt double. The outcry--over both shortcomings, mind you--prompted an actual congressional investigation. And Pfizer yanked the ads.

So, if a drug company can create a PR storm by allowing a medical doctor to--how dare they?--impersonate a practicing medical doctor, then how might the world look upon faux patients exhibiting the wonders of a treatment? Well, we're all accustomed to watching actors skip through pharma commercials, smiling at their renewed health. So maybe a "patient story" has no obligation to be true.

No doubt a story would be more convincing if it is true, and we can envision drugmakers discrediting any fake narrative floated by a competitor. That's a PR problem in the making. But given all that DTC history of fake patients, one could make a case for "typical patient" stories. Either way, it sounds like a conundrum drugmakers need to address up front rather than risk being blindsided by criticism.

Ironically enough, a real patient's narrative picked up a Lion in Cannes this week, the blog post notes. But it was a bronze, not a gold.

- see the blog post