Merck and ViiV are keeping it real with their TV ads. Which drugmakers will follow?

TV and advertising graphic
Drugmakers are starting to use real patients in their DTC ads.

Pharma has long been big on getting real patients to share their stories. But now, it’s starting to move those stories to the small screen.

2017 saw a trend toward featuring patients in television commercialsand with drugmakers looking for ways to genuinely connect with their audiences, they may just carry that trend into 2018 and beyond.

RELATED: Merck adds real patient to 'TRU' Keytruda TV ad

Merck, for its part, already has its “It’s TRU” Keytruda advertising, which kicked off in September with the story of stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer patient Donna. Merck socked more than $5.9 million into national placements for the adwhich features Donna going about her normal day while sharing her experiences with the immuno-oncology medin its first 10 days on the air.

GlaxoSmithKline’s HIV unit, ViiV Healthcare, followed up later in the year with its own real-patients ad, featuring five HIV patients talking about their diagnoses and treatment in a spot for Triumeq.

Featuring real patients' stories in other non-TV marketing is nothing new for pharma, of course. Those stories have been bolstering awareness efforts across the pharma world for years. For proof, just look to Amgen, which last December teamed up with oral history nonprofit StoryCorps to record and share firsthand accounts from myeloma patients; Novartis, which in 2014 brought on a pro photographer to help capture psoriasis patient stories as part of its “Skin Impressions” campaign; and Merck KGaA, which more recently created a “My Story” feature to help multiple sclerosis patients chronicle and share their journeys.

So when it comes to moving those stories to television, why now? One hypothesis: Drugmakers may be looking to avoid blowback from patients fed up with seeing actors in drug commercials presenting out-of-touch depictions of living with disease. Biogen, for one, got its fair share of that last year after rolling out a Tecfidera ad that featured an active young woman hiking and swimming. Some patients called the portrayal unrealistic in terms of the actress’ energy levels and the effects of her medication.

Keeping its portrayal true to real life certainly went into the decision-making around ViiV’s ad, Andrew Perry, ViiV VP of marketing in the U.S., said in an email interview earlier this month.

“Given the importance of presenting realistic, positive images of the life a person being treated for HIV can lead, we felt like it was the right time to broaden our approach,” he said, adding, "We felt that now more than ever we must present a realistic, modern view of what the life of a person living with HIV can look like if their HIV is appropriately treated—and to do that on television for the first time.”