Method for the Madness: Tournament finalists Intra-Cellular and GSK talk about the winning formula for TV drug ads

Most Americans are well acquainted with TV commercials for pharmaceutical drugs. Exposed almost every ad break, and often by repeat offenders, drug DTCs are a phenomenon now intrinsic in American culture.

With so much noise, however, how can you stand out from the crowd? That’s what we at Fierce Pharma Marketing wanted to know for this year’s Fierce March Madness drug ad tournament, which sought to find the best drug ads, as voted by you, from the past two years.

After tallying the thousands of votes we received throughout the tournament, two very different ads made it through to the final round. Intra-Cellular and its "Let in the Lyte" ad for bipolar depression drug Caplyta went up against GSK’s Shingrix vaccine commercial titled “Shingles Doesn’t Care: Bubble.”

In the end, Intra-Cellular walked away with the championship in a highly convincing win, nabbing just shy of 1,500 votes in the final round to GSK’s fewer than 300.

In an interview with Fierce Pharma Marketing, Intra-Cellular VP of Marketing Debra Marchese said the journey of both the ad and the drug has been a complex one. Caplyta was first approved by the FDA in December 2019 for certain schizophrenia patients but was launched several months later during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

But Marchese explained that Intra-Cellular decided to push on with its DTC plans, which focused on “Progress” and used deliberately gentle visuals and sounds given the sensitivities of this patient group.

But it was tough. “Access to physicians and prescribers was impacted by the pandemic,” Marchese said. “So, the way we found to really access prescribers and caregivers for those with schizophrenia was through DTCs, which started in the second half of 2020.”

Two years later, in January 2022, Intra-Cellular nabbed a new license in bipolar depression and once again focused on DTCs. This time, the company took a new approach from its schizophrenia work, and “Let in the Lyte” was born.

The ad, created alongside IPG’s advertising company Hill Holliday Health, represents a new way of highlighting the rawness of depression in bipolar patients. The commercial opens with people standing in near dark and shows how they can step into the light by tapping the “lyt” from Caplyta.

“We’re playing on the universal understanding on darkness being a metaphor for depressive episodes, so we simply used light as the metaphor for hope,” Marchese said. Tapping the lyt from Caplyta was a natural progression of that idea.

She added that working with Hill Holliday Health, the teams were able to “execute, elegantly, what was a very tricky and technical, creative campaign. The lighting installations [several scenes use a series of different lighting techniques] were difficult to create in a technical sense, and creating that simple idea of darkness-to-light was not an easy shoot, but they pulled it off really well for us.”

These are tough conditions to live with and treat, but also to advertise for. There needs to be a balance of empathy and optimism, something Marchese said Intra-Cellular balanced with “dignity with hope.”

This also comes amid huge noise in the DTC space from immunology and diabetes drugs, which dominate pharma’s drug ad spending budgets.

“Seeing a drug in mental health winning [the Fierce Madness Tournament] is a real win for the whole space,” Marchese said, “and I think it speaks to how mental health and wellness is top of mind for people these days.”

She noted that the isolation and anxiety about illness tied to the COVID-19 pandemic brought home the effects of mental health to everyone. That may explain how ads like the one for Caplyta are being received. In the past, drugs in this space may have been more easily passed over. 

Marchese said that the light-to-darkness motif has become an integral part of the drug’s DTCs. The company released its latest ad—"Dawn"— earlier this year, and it also plays on “feeling the darkest before the dawn,” where Caplyta is the metaphorical dawn.

Shingles doesn't care

While Intra-Cellular rightly gets the plaudits, GSK’s ad is a highly deserving finalist and says a lot about how to run a successful campaign.

Though focused on very different conditions, there were many similarities with the two ads: Both had to contend with COVID-19 hitting uptake, with Shingrix arguably hit harder given that its patient population is older and likely to have more chronic conditions, something that stopped people from visiting their doctors’ offices for their shots.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that everyone over 50 years old get a shingles vaccine. The virus, which comes from chickenpox that most people have as a child, can be reactivated in later life and cause painful rashes that may take weeks or months to go away.

But many people believe that if they live a healthy life, then they don’t need to worry about shingles, explained Stephanie Jen, VP of marketing, U.S. vaccines, in an interview with Fierce Pharma Marketing.

“But of course, that’s not true,” she said. “What ‘Bubble’ is trying to get at is that you can live a healthy life and still get this disease because it simply lays dormant.”

GSK also wedded that idea to COVID-19 given that the ad came out in 2021 when the pandemic was at its peak. The ad links the idea of keeping two meters apart or shopping for your groceries online as being ways to help stop COVID-19 transmission, but for shingles, well, “it doesn’t care,” because you already have the virus.

“The campaign changed with COVID,” Jen said. “All the behaviors that became entrenched like social distancing and washing your hands, in the context of shingles we saw the message had to be reset because people were thinking ‘well hey, if I’m doing those things, I’m safe from shingles,’ so that’s why we had to retell that story.”

She also said it’s “pretty noteworthy” to have a vaccine take the second spot in Fierce Madness, coming amid a rise in the more vocal opponents of vaccines, something which has become louder with the use of new vaccines for COVID-19 over the past two years.

“In terms of the anti-vax movement, I would say what we saw in COVID was both headwinds and tailwinds. The headwinds, well there was a lot of politicizations of COVID that I think lit a fire in the anti-vax community but on the tailwinds prospective, there is now a greater awareness and understanding on how vaccines help us more than there ever has been, because of COVID and because we were all talking about it for so long.

“I think we’re having conversations on vaccines like never before, and that’s a good thing.”