Going for emotion: Pharma takes a page from consumer marketers for Olympic ads

Olympic Games marketers have a long history of crafting emotional TV ads that “soft sell” brands or companies. Themes like determination, family, triumph over adversity, and patriotism often result in heartwarming, dramatic and even cinematic TV commercials.

This year, some pharma marketers are joining in and following some of those more traditionally emotional Olympic ad themes.

Of the 6 pharma ads tracked by iSpot.tv that aired during the opening Olympic Games weekend, three were corporate or disease awareness TV spots that fit the subtler and more emotional mold.

Take Pfizer’s ($PFE) anthemic “Before it Became a Medicine,” which traces the long journey of a drug going from idea to compound to an actual pill. The emotional play is strong as the ad ends, when a young father taking that pill says, as he scoops his young son into his arms, “and so after it became a medicine, someone who couldn’t be cured, could be. Me.”

Merck ($MRK) ran a new version of its poignant disease awareness ad for HPV vaccinations during primetime Olympic coverage, too. The new 1-minute ad features both a young woman and a young man who talk about now having cancer caused by HPV. In a series of age regression photos, both go back in time to their pre-teen selves. Along the backward time lapse, they ask, “who knew” that there was something that could have protected them long before they were exposed to HPV. In the final shot of each story, now as 12-year-olds, they ask “Did you know? Mom? Dad?”

The other emotionally fraught ad came from Mylan ($MYL), which re-aired its relatively new “Face Your Risk” ad addressing the dangers of severe food allergies. In it, a young woman gasps for breath after eating a brownie with peanut butter in it. As her friends panic and dial 911, the girl looks into the mirror at her swollen face now covered in hives and then passes out.

With a total of $1.2 billion in TV ads sold for the Rio Olympics, Seth Winter, executive VP of advertising sales for NBC Sports Group, told Advertising Age that the network is up 20% in ad sales compared with the 2012 London Games. He said categories including auto, insurance, beverage, telecom and consumer packaged goods are the most represented categories, but added that “pharmaceuticals is also a surprisingly strong category this year.”

Even some of the branded pharma ads that aired the first weekend leaned Olympic.

Novo Nordisk’s ($NVO) TV ad for its diabetes treatment Victoza featured Olympic gold medal basketball player Dominque Wilkins, which is a direct tie, but Wilkins also talks about the “moment of truth” for people like himself with Type 2 diabetes. Pfizer’s commercial for rheumatoid arthritis drug Xeljanz XR goes the family route with an ad that shows a mom being awakened by her adorable and active young daughter before they going about their active day with a model-handsome and loving dad.

- read Ad Age coverage

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