AstraZeneca enlists Walter the Dino to paint rivals as outdated

AstraZeneca wants to turn a challenge into a strength. Facing the need to change 50 years of prescribing habits in asthma, the drugmaker is running a TV ad that presents the incumbent as a dinosaur, literally, and makes the case for switching to the new rescue inhaler Airsupra.

The FDA approved Airsupra in adults at the start of 2023. Because the pressurized metered-dose inhaler contains albuterol and budesonide, Airsupra is designed to alleviate the symptoms of asthma attacks and treat underlying inflammation. Existing rescue inhalers only address the symptoms, leading AstraZeneca to focus on the importance of a dual-action approach in unbranded campaigns last year.

AstraZeneca’s direct-to-consumer campaign puts a new spin on the message. The 60-second TV spot opens on a close-up of an inhaler under the superimposed text “Before there was Airsupra for asthma …” Green scales fill the periphery of the frame, providing a hint at the upcoming reveal.

As the camera pulls back, we see the inhaler is on a chain around the neck of a dinosaur. As the voice-over says “you might be used to living with your albuterol asthma rescue inhaler, but it's a bit of a dinosaur,” the ad shows the challenges life with a big green reptile creates for our protagonist.  

The creature, which AstraZeneca has named Walter the Dino, is a friendly-looking chap but is ill-suited to the modern urban environment. We first see Walter in a car, steaming up the windscreen with his breath and taking up most of the space in the vehicle. The driver has scant room, despite Walter considerately sticking his tail out of a window. A subsequent scene shows Walter and the driver squeezing into an elevator.

Walter is banished by a physician, who closes the door on the dinosaur and shows the driver information about Airsupra. After picking up a prescription for AstraZeneca’s inhaler, the man walks happily along the street, smiling at passersby and feeling the joy that comes from being untethered from his hefty sidekick. 

The ad gives Walter two final scenes. First, we see the dinosaur’s head sticking out of the window of a taxi, causing the roof of the Prius to buckle in the process. Walter and the man give each other a smile and a salute but are now on different paths. In the final frames, AstraZeneca shows the Airsupra inhaler and the back end of Walter walking off screen.

AstraZeneca is airing the ad across all major segments of the TV schedule and getting its message in front of eyeballs during the heavily watched morning and prime-time slots. The question now is whether wider awareness of Airsupra and the value of tackling symptoms and inflammation translates into sales.

The drugmaker cited the Airsupra launch as a driver of increased spending in the fourth quarter but also warned investors that it will take time to grow sales. U.S. physicians write 15 million to 18 million scripts a year for incumbent inhalers, giving AstraZeneca a big opportunity, but AstraZeneca will need to change decades of prescribing habits to convert those prescriptions. CEO Pascal Soriot is playing the long game. 

“This is not an oncology new indication that really addresses a big unmet need with a very fast sales ramp up. It's more progressive. But the beauty of this kind of inhaled product is that when you are established, you have a very durable asset,” Soriot said on an earnings call with investors in February.