Going beyond smiling, happy patients: Is better creative on the pharma horizon?

Screenshot from the "Take It From a Fish" campaign--Courtesy of AstraZeneca

In 2014, the swagger-filled advertising confab Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity added Health Lion awards for the first time for pharma, and health and wellness. The first year, pharma didn't fare well. But in this second year, U.K. pharma AstraZeneca's ($AZN) took the top prize--a Grand Prix (don't ask, it's France)--for its humorous "Take It From a Fish" digital campaign promoting the importance of triglycerides.

Fancy award shows aside, there is an ongoing belief that creativity in pharma is uninspired and formulaic at best, and "embarrassing" at worst (according to small agency CEO Marc Brownstein writing in Advertising Age a few years ago).

It is true that too many TV ads feature scores of smiling patients walking along sunny beaches, riding bikes and holding hands; that does nurture a particular typecasting. However, the award-winning Brooklyn-accented mackerel, along with the increase in other stereotype-busting campaigns should also offer hope.

Novartis' ($NVS) Gilenya for multiple sclerosis, Sunovion and Takeda's "The Boy I Used to Know" short film for schizophrenia, and the Tena Man for incontinence (He's the "World's Most Interesting Man" with bladder issues) show that irreverence, emotion and even humor have place in pharma marketing.

Healthcare and pharma ad agencies have been talking about it for some time, of course, but they're also doing more to change, such as hiring creatives from "outside" the industry to offer fresh perspective. They're also readjusting their thinking, or as one executive noted, "taking a good hard look at themselves."

Nick Colucci, CEO of Publicis Healthcare Group, told Ad Age in an interview after the Cannes awards this year: "We've got to make [the creative] even better. We learned something last year and I do think we applied it this year to some of the work, in raising our quality of work or the edginess in which we'd push things."

- read Ad Age Cannes article