Vexing IBS-D spokescharacter 'Irritabelle' headlines Allergan's Viberzi ad push


She's an irritating, yet oddly captivating, redhead in a flesh-colored unitard with screen-printed intestines on her stomach. No, it's not your crazy cousin's latest Halloween getup, but the newest spokescharacter for a prescription drug.

Her name is Irritabelle, and she is the personification of an irritable bowel--specifically one afflicted with IBS-D, in new ads and online videos for Allergan's Viberzi. Comedian Ilana Becker portrays Irritabelle, who, like IBS-D, is annoying and inconvenient, interrupting at the worst times to disrupt her female owner's life.

Arnold Worldwide, the ad agency behind the campaign, tested multiple creative ideas, but found Irritabelle to resonate "by far" the best with IBS-D sufferers, said Gary Scheiner, executive creative director at Arnold.

"IBS is not a life-or-death condition, but it absolutely affects your quality of life," he said. "People were willing to laugh, and see themselves in the storyline. The commercial features someone very much like them going about their day and trying not to let this thing control them."

Women are the main characters in the campaign, because according to research, women are more frequently afflicted. They're diagnosed with IBS more than twice as often as men, said Chuck Sabino, vice president of GI marketing at Allergan.

Allergan also knew from its own research and experience with IBS--it has marketed the IBS-C treatment Linzess since 2012-that many people suffer in silence. Some 67% of people were afflicted with symptoms for more than a year before seeking help from a doctor, and 11% waited more than a decade, Sabino said, quoting a recent American Gastroenterology Association study.

"Patients are really embarrassed to talk about the condition," he added. "The same survey showed patients were more comfortable discussing sexually transmitted disease than their bowel movements."

The FDA approved Viberzi last May, at the same time it approved competitor Valeant's Xifaxan, which has been running an aggressive marketing push since last October, including a Super Bowl ad. The oral medications work differently, however: Viberzi activates receptors in the bowel to lessen contractions, while Xifaxan is an antibiotic derivative. Viberzi launched in the U.S. in December, slowed by DEA scheduling.

More recently, some consumers pushed back against digestive disorder advertising in general, particularly after the Super Bowl in February. The Xifaxan ad, and another for OIC awareness from AstraZeneca, set of a temporary Twitter storm, but the Viberzi team say they aren't worried about that.

Any advertising about IBS and IBS-D awareness benefits the patients who suffer in silence, Sabino said. Scheiner added that the fact that two different companies ran expensive Super Bowl ads to address such conditions points up a need for more conversations.

The Viberzi DTC campaign will include prime time and cable TV, print, and digital, and serves as a complement to Allergan's professional marketing which includes 1,500 sales reps in the field educating healthcare providers.

"There is such a sea of sameness in typical pharma advertising, it's very easy to blend in, We really think this stands out," Scheiner said. "Even if they don't remember Viberzi by name, they will remember that commercial with the woman in the unitard."

- read Viberzi U.S. launch press release