GlaxoSmithKline revives Bexsero's meningitis B moms in renewed back-to-college TV push

GlaxoSmithKline is bringing its mom squad back to primetime.

The “Moms Against Meningitis B” spot, a promo for GSK's vaccine Bexsero, is back on TV this month just in time for back-to-college, albeit a bit later than last year's push. The commercial first ran last June through September.

The ad shows mothers in typical college scenes with their college student kids—packing boxes, moving into dorm rooms—as they talk about the disease. One says, “Even if meningitis B is rare, that’s not a chance we’re willing to take.”

It's a statement that encapsulates the difficulty of marketing the men B vaccine, a relatively new product that not only competes head-to-head with a Pfizer shot, but whose sales require building a brand-new market from scratch. And this in a viral strain that can be fatal, but crops up at a rate so small that some experts think a vaccination is simply overkill.

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Awareness is a big part of the strategy. The Bexsero branded advertising works in conjunction with GSK’s unbranded meningitis B campaign. That effort's latest push began in May, with animation ads designed to both grab viewers' attention and offer a counterbalance to the serious and potentially scary consequences of meningitis B, GSK told FiercePharma in June. TV spending to date is $24 million, according to data from real-time TV ad tracker with the campaign still running on TV, and also in print, digital, in-office and social media.

The marketing the MenB vaccine has been twofold: Emphasizing that it's a shot separate from the old-and-familiar pan-meningococcal vaccine and convincing parents to seek it out even though it's recommended, not required. The older meningococcal vaccine, which protects against A,C,W, and Y strains, is mandatory at most colleges.

Meanwhile, GSK must walk a fine line between the deadliness of the disease on one side and its extreme rarity in the U.S. on the other. Only 370 cases were reported by the CDC in 2016.

When the Bexsero Moms Against Meningitis ad rolled out last year, a New York Times article quoted several experts who questioned MenB vaccine makers' use of fear marketing to convince parents to get the expensive vaccine for their children headed off to college.

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“Some physicians and other industry experts are now growing uneasy about the role of marketing in leveraging parental fears to sell the meningitis B vaccines as well as other expensive vaccines for rare illnesses,” the article pointed out.

That article included responses from GSK and Pfizer, the maker of competing men B vaccine Trumenba, who both pointed out that their marketing only advises parents to ask a doctor if the vaccine is appropriate for their child. 

A GSK spokesman said in an email that it did not have any additional campaign details to share, but did note that its DTC efforts are "an important tool for education."

"GSK takes seriously our role as a partner in helping to protect public health and is committed to providing vaccines for vaccine-preventable diseases, including meningitis B. We are also committed to providing education for public health officials, health care providers and patients about this uncommon, but potentially fatal disease, so that patients and health care professionals can have discussions about vaccination options," he said.

GSK leads in MenB vaccine market share and reported global Bexsero sales of £556 million in 2017, an increase of 43% over £390 million in sales in 2016. Both Bexsero and Trumenba recently received breakthrough designations to treat children as young as ages 1 or 2.