Pharma ads got animated in 2020—but COVID's not the only reason they'll stay that way

Animated people being active
Pharma produced more animated TV and video ads in 2020, such as this one for Novo Nordisk's Rybelsus. (Novo Nordisk)

One of the most obvious adaptations to the “new normal” of the COVID-19 pandemic—when filming on a set was well nigh impossible—was the move to animation in advertising. And pharma joined right in.

As stay-at-home orders and social distancing made it difficult to get people together for TV and video ad production, pharma came up with some clever workarounds. Intra-Cellular Therapies hired actors and their real-life families to act out scenes for its schizophrenia drug Caplyta. Merck & Co. used existing footage for its awareness spot reminding parents to keep up on their preteen children's wellness exams after nearly everything went online.

But the more prevalent and conspicuous change was a move to animation. Novo Nordisk’s first DTC ad for Type 2 diabetes drug Rybelsus featured a sunny, maskless animated world, full of happy animated people doing things real people couldn’t.

While the spot successfully evoked the cheery vibes of happier times, animation was not the original plan. With major production hubs shut down and travel restricted, Novo Nordisk looked at its options and animation rose to the top.

RELATED: Novo Nordisk debuts animated Rybelsus ad after COVID-19 nixed film shoot

“It turned out better than we ever imagined. And quite honestly, I think it's become really, really strong. And there's a lot of excitement now as a result of it, which is great,” Ed Cinca, vice president of Novo Nordisk’s GLP-1 portfolio, said.

Pharma isn't entirely new to animation, of course. Spokes-characters, for example, have been especially popular in the industry for decades. Remember Novartis' Lamisil Digger the Dermatophyte (2003), Merck's Nasonex bee (2004) and Pfizer's Zoloft sad blob (2009)? Drugmakers have also used TV and video ads to explain complicated aspects of a disease and treatments.

This year, AbbVie went the animation route for their “Psoriasis: Inflammation” TV ad. Along with animation, that commercial ticked several other boxes on the COVID-19 ad scorecard—keeping up with doctor visits, wearing masks at appointments and discussing telehealth as an option.

Animation also makes dealing with the optics of some diseases a little easier, as in the AbbVie commercial, where animated psoriasis gets the point across without showing imagery of the real affliction.

The same goes for Horizon’s trio of ads for its thyroid eye disease (TED) eye drug, Tepezza. Brightly colored animated eyes suffering from TED depicted severe pain and inflammation without showing actual afflicted eyes in the spot.

RELATED: Proposed FDA study on pharma's animated character ads draws suggestions from industry, fire from consumers

Boehringer Ingelheim chose animation for its “Lungs and You” spot for interstitial lung disease (ILD) as a complement to its LungsandYou.com website.

"The spot features a warm, hand-drawn animation style that complements the updated Lungs&You website launching in 2021," Al Masucci, vice president of Boehringer's ILD business unit, said via email. “We chose an animation style because it captures the emotional journey that viewers may find themselves on by using color, texture, and landscape."

Besides the obvious pandemic-era benefits, animation can also be eye-catching and even cost-effective. While 2020 shutdowns reinforced its value, it's unlikely to go away in the industry, even after the pandemic passes as more companies realize benefits.