When is bad press not so bad? When it's building a market, AstraZeneca says of its Super Bowl experiment

AstraZeneca's unbranded OIC ad helped send total Movantik prescriptions soaring by 35% last year.

Last year, AstraZeneca garnered loads of bad press after putting opioid-induced constipation (OIC) on the national stage with a Super Bowl spot. But the way the company saw it, all news was good news.

“Regardless what the tone of the press was, it was still a mention of opioid-induced constipation that wasn’t there the day before,” company marketing leader Alison Papandrea told an audience during last week’s DTC National Conference in Boston.

With almost no prescription market around the malady at the time, the criticism increased awareness about a problem Papandrea said wasn’t being discussed. And the payoff happened partly because AZ was ready to field controversy if and when it happened.

Fault-finders, who included President Obama's chief of staff, called AZ’s ad a “shameful attempt” to exploit the opioid crisis and accused the company of working to get consumers using more opioids. The ad itself featured a constipated man envying those who didn’t struggle to use the bathroom.

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Considering the British drugmaker’s engagement stats around the unbranded campaign, Papandrea's awareness-raising claim is tough to argue. Between the Super Bowl spot and backup efforts—ads in doctors' offices, digital marketing and more—AZ nabbed more than 1 billion impressions and measured a 13% increase in conversations surrounding OIC.

As awareness picked up, so did prescriptions, validating AZ’s theory that as the OIC market leader, if patients went to their doctors asking about OIC meds, they’d most likely wind up with the pharma giant’s Movantik rather than a new competitor. The company saw a 35% lift in total prescription volume—a big payoff for AZ, which took a leap of faith shelling out major dollars on a Super Bowl campaign, and an unbranded one at that.

Things may not have turned out the same way had the company been unprepared for controversy. “Because of the climate around opioids, we knew that was going to be kind of a hot-button issue,” Papandrea said, and taking steps such as keeping a patient at the center of the ad, opting for an unbranded campaign, and partnering with patient advocacy groups helped stem the backlash.

The advocacy partnerships in particular proved to be key during the post-Super Bowl media siege, she said: “As we did have things that came up in the media, … in many cases, our partners were able to jump in and represent that patient voice. That was really the last piece of our solution.”