PhRMA hopes to polish pharma's tarnished rep with patient-focused ad campaign

Rhys, a 5-year-old patient with Type 1 diabetes, features in PhRMA's latest ad campaign.--Screenshot from PhRMA's ad

Pharma's image has been sagging lately, so the leading U.S. trade group is trying for a facelift. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) is kicking off a new ad campaign aimed at polishing up pharma's tarnished rep.

The campaign, called "From Hope to Cures," is a "several million dollar" effort that features the themes "hope," "courage," "solvable" and "achievable" to tell the story of fighting serious diseases, Holly Campbell, senior director of communications at PhRMA, told FiercePharmaMarketing in an email. The ads come as pharma companies face backlash from lawmakers and the public over skyrocketing a drug prices--a hot-button issue that has also garnered attention from presidential hopefuls such as Hillary Clinton.

The first ad features two patients, 5-year-old Rhys, who has Type 1 diabetes and Jamie, a woman living with a rare blood cancer. A researcher named Jennifer who is wearing goggles and a Merck ($MRK) lab coat also makes an appearance. Merck declined to comment to FiercePharmaMarketing about the ad.

At the beginning of the ad, Jennifer stands in front of a white board with the word "unsolvable" scrawled across the middle. Jamie stands on the beach with the word "discourage" written in the sand," and Rhys looks at the word "hopeless" spelled out in blue building blocks on the living room floor.

Jennifer then erases the white board, saying, "thanks to new treatments…," and Jamie and Rhys chime in "we're fighting back." Jamie wipes out the words in the sand and Rhys knocks down the blocks. "Today, more than 7,000 new medicines are being developed around the world," Jennifer says as the does lab work. "Every day brings us closer to a cure," Jennifer says at the end of the ad, with the word "solvable" written behind her on the white board. Jamie stands by the word "courage" in the sand and Rhys sits by the word "hope" spelled out in blocks.

Ads will be featured in print, radio, digital and social channels throughout the year, Campbell said. And promotions will run on a "variety of platforms" in Washington, DC, and select states, but those states "have not yet been identified," Campbell said.

Jennifer, a researcher wearing a Merck lab coat, also features in the new PhRMA ad.--Screenshot from PhRMA's ad

The fact that the ads are centered around patients is a "smart strategy," Wendy Blackburn, executive VP of pharma marketing agency InTouch Solutions, told FiercePharmaMarketing. "It's easy to forget about the value of the meds when we're talking about pricing and folks like Martin Shkreli," Blackburn said. "To focus more on the end result and the patient makes sense. We can all look internally and see how people we know have benefited from the drugs."

The ads play in to PhRMA's efforts to distance itself and its members from companies such as Turing Pharmaceuticals and Valeant ($VRX), which have come under fire for big drug-price increases. PhRMA has said the two companies resemble hedge funds more than drugmakers. The group also placed some of the blame on insurers, who "are forcing patients to shoulder more of the costs through higher deductibles and copays while also adding coverage restrictions," PhRMA said last year.

Going directly to consumers is a new tactic for the group, but "given the focus and attention on these cases, and how far they depart from how our industry truly operates, we feel it's important for people to understand that there is a different approach other than what you're seeing in the news," Robert Zirkelbach, PhRMA senior VP of communications, told FiercePharmaMarketing in November.

The consumer approach might pay off in the long run, Blackburn said. "For an industry organization to let the public know about the good that the industry does is the right initiative. The industry is full of good people whose intentions are pure and whose goals are to improve the lives of patients, and these type of stories bring that to life," Blackburn said.

- watch the ad here

Special Reports: 10 big brands keep pumping out big bucks, with a little help from price hikes | The top 10 most expensive drugs of 2013