Merck hopes ominous new Zostavax ad can scare up adult vaccination rates

Merck's newest Zostavax ad features a lone swimmer, unaware of the threat shingles poses. Image: Zostavax

It wasn’t long ago that Merck’s Zostavax DTC marketing efforts included sporty, comedic spots starring NFL analyst and former quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Its newest effort couldn’t be more different.

The company is now running “Lurking Inside,” and if the name of the commercial alone doesn’t scare you, the creepy music, ominous shots of a defenseless woman swimming alone, graphic shingles imagery and threatening narration by the disease personified will likely do the trick.

“Impressive, Linda. It seems age isn’t slowing you down. But your immune system weakens as you get older, increasing the risk for me, the shingles virus," the narrator asks in a voice-over fit for a proper Disney villainess.

"I’ve been lurking inside you since you had chicken pox," the virus' voice goes on. "I could surface any time as a painful, blistering rash. One in three people will get me in their lifetime, Linda. Will it be you?”

The ad’s fear factor is no accident, said Patrick Bergstedt, VP of Global Marketing for Merck Vaccines, in an interview with FiercePharma.

Bradshaw made a great spokesman, he explained, with “all the pizzazz and all the personality,” but considering the severity, prevalence and preventability of shingles, “I think we felt that it was time to become a little more serious and get through to people to say, ‘take action please.’”

Merck isn’t the only drugmaker to turn to scare tactics lately—and vaccine makers in particular have jumped on board with the strategy. It’s hard to forget the GlaxoSmithKline grandmother—who morphs into a wolf while cradling her infant grandchild—to convey the threat of spreading whooping cough without knowing it. More recently, a Pfizer Trumenba spot portrayed a mother in the hospital with a meningitis B-stricken son.

Companies may be hoping their new ads can scare up the low vaccination rate among adults, who aren’t bound by a mandatory immunization schedule.

When it comes to vaccines, “even if you receive a prescription from your physician, you don’t have to go fill it,” Bergstedt said, and “that’s why I think when you see some of these communications, there’s more of a personal appeal speaking to the individual to say, ‘you are at risk, please take action.’ It’s more of a human touch, I think. It’s much more direct.”

Meanwhile, Merck is about to get a scare of its own in the form of some hefty new competition to its shingles shot. GSK has a late-stage candidate in the works whose efficacy remained constant in Phase III study participants between the ages of 50 and 70, giving it a leg up over Zostavax, which has declined efficacy in older people.