Pharma sits on sidelines for Super Bowl LI, but one DTC parody grabs the spotlight

Pharma companies sat out the Super Bowl this year, but the familiar voiceover with "scary" side effects still showed up in a movie trailer that parodied formulaic pharma ads.

Pharma companies sat out the Super Bowl this year after last year’s intense scrutiny—and criticism—of three ads that aired. But their DTC devices did make one appearance. 

The Twentieth Century Fox movie trailer for “A Cure for Wellness” parodied a pharma ad, mashing up formulaic imagery from happy couples on the beach to a Tai Chi class in the park. But as the 30-second ad played out, it became apparent that the familiar litany of voiceover side effects was part of a much more sinister twist. (The horror movie is about a man who goes to a “wellness spa” in the Swiss Alps in search of his boss and finds that it is anything but.)

While the past couple of years have seen at least one pharma ad in the Super Bowl, increasing pressure from politicians and consumers about pricing issues may have companies laying low. That pressure, along with last year’s backlash, was likely enough to convince pharma to stay home this year, although the $5 million per 30-second spot price tag may have also been a factor.

Last year, AstraZeneca faced a torrent of complaints about its opioid-induced constipation disease awareness ad, while Valeant ads for its IBS-D fighter Xifaxan and Jublia toenail fungus treatment got similar thumbs downs. In fact, the three ads came in at the bottom of USA Today’s list of its 63 consumer-rated ads: AZ's OIC was No. 60, Xifaxan was No. 62 and Jublia came in dead last at No. 63.