GlaxoSmithKline's Shingrix campaign irks some in UK, but pharma adamant it broke no rules

GlaxoSmithKline has a lot riding on its blockbuster shingles vaccine Shingrix, but some critics argue the British Big Pharma may have gone too far with a new shingles campaign launched in its native U.K.

The rules are very clear in the U.K. and Europe: The sort of DTC commercials you see in the U.S. with heavy drug promotion are an absolute no-no across the pond. Getting that wrong can lead to censure from regulators.

So how do you market medicines there? One tried and tested method is to create an awareness campaign to talk about a disease or condition while noting treatments are available. Still, such campaigns can never stray into talking directly about prescription drugs.

That is what GSK intended with its new UK Shingles Awareness Week, which the company created in partnership with the International Federation on Ageing. The theme for this year, according to the pharma, is “Shingles Is Here,” to show that if you are 50 or older, the virus that causes shingles is most likely already inside you.

“The week will focus on increasing awareness around the risk of developing shingles for older adults, as well as understanding any possible consequences of the disease. Any concerns should be shared with a healthcare provider,” GSK explained in an accompanying website for the disease.

For one critic, the problem with the campaign is the use of famous TV presenter and journalist Eamon Holmes OBE, now an ambassador for GSK, who has used his 1 million Twitter feed and conducted interviews with the likes of the Evening Standard (but also several other newspapers including the Daily Mail) to talk about his own battle with shingles, which left him with the infamous rash across his face and eye back in 2018.

He does not mention Shingrix, but the association with GSK is mentioned several times, and there are links to the campaign’s website. The site does not mention the vaccine either, instead focusing more on the condition, its history, and who's at risk. It does lead you to GSK’s corporate site, where there is information about Shingrix, though it does not direct you to it.

He encouraged his followers to speak to a doctor, nurse or pharmacist to find out more about the condition.

But this has been a step too far for one critic.

“This is a very slick infomercial which is clearly intended to direct people to the company’s own product,” Graham Dutfield, a law professor and author of That High Design of Purest Gold: A Critical History of the Pharmaceutical Industry, told City Insider. “Appealing in this way to patients over the heads of medics and pharmacists . . . is morally questionable.”

In a statement to Fierce Pharma Marketing, GSK said "disease awareness campaigns are a valuable and legitimate information source for the public on diseases and conditions. Their purpose is to raise awareness of a disease and to provide educational information about that condition.

“This may include symptom recognition, management and appropriate sources of additional information and advice," the company added. "These campaigns are not linked to specific products, nor do they promote the use of particular medicinal products.”

Shingrix nabbed U.K. approval last September, but sales have been hit hard by COVID, notably in the U.S., where people have either been unable or unwilling, given the pandemic, to seek out the shot.

Sales of Shingrix in fact dropped 9% to £1.7 billion ($2.2 billion) last year, “primarily driven by lower demand in the U.S and international for routine adult vaccination due to COVID-19 vaccination programme deployment and disease circulation,” the company said in its full-year results posted lats month.  

But the story was different in Europe, where growth was driven by better sales performance in Germany and launches in the U.K., Spain and Italy.