Are pharma marketers using fear-mongering ads to scare people into asking for drugs?

Fear sells--and pharma marketers have been accused lately of overusing that tactic.

First, there was GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) whooping cough vaccine ad, which portrayed a sick grandmother as a wolf as she held an infant grandchild. Then, there was Novartis' ($NVS) heart failure awareness ad that showed a room filling with water as an unsuspecting man calmly read the newspaper. More recently, Mylan ($MYL) and Pfizer ($PFE) have jumped into the mix with anaphylaxis and meningitis B ads, respectively, that both feature stricken teens who end up in the hospital.

And industry-watchers are taking note. In February, cardio docs piled on in a CardioBrief article to criticize Novartis. And last week, Advertising Age pointed to Big Pharma's “terror tactics."

But that strategy is nothing new, according to David Ropiek, a Harvard instructor and author who studies risk perception and risk communication. He had not specifically studied the pharma ads in question, but viewed them to discuss with FiercePharmaMarketing.

“Fear has been built into the advertising of any company that sells something that can help keep you safe,” he said. He recalled a TV commercial for batteries that showed a mother “losing” her child at a park, only to turn on a locater device--with the trusty batteries inside--and find the wandering child. That spot--a 2008 ad for Duracell batteries--was roundly criticized for preying on parents' fears.

“Pharma is hardly the only industry that sells products to help people protect their health that preys on people’s worries about their health," he said.

One reason for the potential increase in pharma's use of fear tactics? These days, it's harder to get people's attention, given the growing number of media sources. So in advertising--as well as in the news media itself--"more attention-getting approaches are certainly proliferating,” he said. 

One thing the recent ads all have in common: They're disease awareness ads that don't promote specific products. Still, using fear as a motivator can also create a negative backlash, both from the media and consumers, whether it is branded work or disease awareness.  

“The overtness of the scary message, particularly in an advertisement … can raise suspicion in the viewer of mistrust in the messenger--‘I’m not going to buy that because they’re trying to jerk me around to get my money,'" he said.

- read the CardioBrief post
- check out Ad Age's take

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