GSK's big, bad whooping cough vaccination campaign bares its teeth

GSK's whooping cough marketing campaign, including the big bad wolf--Courtesy of GSK

The wolf who gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood's grandma has nothing on GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) new big bad wolf. The frightening star of a new marketing effort encouraging whooping cough vaccinations transfigures a grandmother's face while she cradles her newborn grandchild. Even GSK notes the ad may be "a bit unsettling" to some people.

The multimedia campaign targets grandparents specifically to make them aware of the potential danger of pertussis' "big bad cough" for their newborn and infant grandchildren. Adults have historically low vaccination rates. For Tdap, the combined diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine for grown-ups, only 17% of adults over age 19 are up-to-date, according to recent CDC data. GSK said grandparent vaccination rates are even lower, coming in at below 10%. Adults are the most common carriers or "spreaders" of pertussis to infants, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

"Around two or three years ago, we really started to investigate what is going to be the best way for us as a company to help improve immunization rates for adults," said GSK's director of commercial strategy, Mick Stanley, in a behind-the-scenes video for the campaign. "We're nowhere near where we need to be."

GSK research with grandparents found that they have a very low awareness that whooping cough was a serious danger to infants, said Brian Gartside, marketing director, integrated customer experience at GSK. While grandparents understood their own risks with whooping cough, he said, GSK found only 2% were aware of possible consequences to infant grandchildren. In testing, the wolf campaign not only broke through and got noticed, but also had a strong takeaway with grandparents remembering the message, Gartside said. The campaign, created by Ogilvy CommonHealth and digital agency Backe, is funded through the end of the year and will run in national print, TV, digital and social media with new print in the works that features a grandpa wolf.

The campaign comes at a time when attitudes towards vaccinations are becoming more positive. A recent study by C.S. Mott Children's Hospital found that one-third of parents perceived more benefits from vaccinations than they did one year ago. The hospital said that may be due in part to high-profile outbreaks of measles and whooping cough.

With the increasing number and media coverage of outbreaks, the CDC has also gotten more aggressive in urging people to get vaccinated, including putting out a recent guidance letter to pharmacists explaining vaccine recommendations and noting that current adult vaccination levels are "unacceptably low."

Both GSK and Sanofi ($SNY) make the combined Tdap vaccine for adults and older children. GSK is now the No. 1 pharma in vaccines after folding in Novartis' ($NVS) offerings. GSK recently reported it expects overall vaccines to expand by about 10% annually and contribute 14% to its total sales going forward.

Note: The campaign is already raising a different kind of awareness. A campaign now running asks GSK to pull the commercial because it "needlessly demonizes wolves."

- see the TV ad
- read the Mott Hospital study news

Special Report: The top 5 vaccine makers by 2013 revenue - GlaxoSmithKline