Pharma TV ads get groovy with '70s rock soundtrack proliferation

Pharma TV ads have been breaking out their boogie shoes lately. A handful of branded drug ads currently on the air are using popular ‘70s light rock songs to accompany their treatment messages, both to aid recall and to reach older audiences with music from their youth.

Music can be a powerful emotional and memory device in advertising, said David Allan, a Saint Joseph’s University marketing professor and author specializing in music in commercials. Music can conjure up fond (and not-so-fond) memories. Just think about how most people learn the alphabet by using the familiar song to help them remember it. And who hasn’t had an earworm pop lyric stuck in their head all day?

RELATED: Easy as 1-2-3, GSK’s triple COPD drug Trelegy dances onto TV with first DTC ads

For pharma companies, the familiar, upbeat and bouncy ‘70s tunes quickly grab attention with the audience they’re likely intended for. Songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Allan said, are often targeted at a specific group of older consumers who grew up on those songs.

“As long as they’re not picking iconic songs—maybe it’s a sort of disposable song from the ‘70s or ‘80s—it’s kind of clever. And clever gets attention and clever is remembered. It’s just not terribly cutting edge,” he said.

Consumers can get upset about favorite music in advertising, as he mentioned; in his research, he found that older consumers do not like when favorite songs from the past are used for product advertising. For them, the ads recontextualize the song from a treasured memory as a way to sell a product. Younger people don’t mind it as much, Allan said, and instead often enjoy the fact that a favorite song is getting extra airplay in TV ads—as long as the product isn’t something like Depends.

At least six pharma brands today are running TV ad campaigns using ‘70s music, including Novartis’ Entresto, Amgen’s Repatha, Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic, GlaxoSmithKline’s Trelegy, Sanofi's Toujeo and GlaxoSmithKline’s Anoro. (See the quiz below to match the songs to the drugs.)

While music can propel ads to better recognition, many pharma companies have not traditionally taken full advantage of it. The music in pharma TV ads in general tends to be nondescript, Allan said, even bordering on boring. To be fair, regulatory guidelines specifically forbid distracting or loud music—Celgene and Sanofi received FDA warning letters in 2016 for oral psoriasis treatment Otezla and diabetes drug Toujeo TV ads with the admonishment that the audio was too loud and distracting. Sanofi's retooled ad only recently returned to the TV airwaves.

RELATED: Amgen tones down TV ad for Repatha with disco music and wedding revelry

Still, any music may be better than none. A 2015 Nielsen study found commercials with music performed better across four metrics—creativity, empathy, emotive power and information power—than those without music. Some types of music are better at delivering specific responses, according to the review of 600 TV ads. Pop music, for instance, delivered emotive power, while generic background music helped improve information power.

In Allan’s content analysis research, he found that most of the music in TV ads has to do with the story in the commercial, not the product. For example, take the Swiffer commercial that uses the song “Baby Come Back” with a sad, old-style mop peering in a window where a Swiffer mop has replaced it.

That principle would apply to songs in pharma commercials like, “And the Beat Goes On” for Novartis heart drug Entresto, where an X-rayed beating heart is shown before the ad reveals the people behind the heart going about their daily activities like cooking dinner or going on a date with a spouse. "And the Beat Goes On" supports and emphasizes the storyline of people going on, even with cardiovascular disease. 

Among advertisers in general, auto makers are some of the best at employing music in ads, Allan said. Music in beer and soda ads has also been effective, but not so much for pharma. Allan's 2015 book, "This Note's for You," detailed his top 20 uses of music in commercials and, maybe not surprisingly, no pharma commercials made the cut, he said.

Test your pharma TV advertising and music prowess by matching the correct ‘70s song to the pharma TV commercial:

1-Novartis’ Entresto
2-GlaxoSmithKline’s Trelegy
3-Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic
4-Amgen’s Repatha
5-GlaxoSmithKline’s Anoro
6-Sanofi's Toujeo

A-"Boogie Shoes"
D-"Let's Groove"
E-"Go Your Own Way"
F-"And the Beat Goes On"

ANSWERS: 1-F, 2-C, 3-B, 4-A, 5-E, 6-D