Lamisil Digger - Novartis

Character: Lamisil Digger
Company: Novartis

The Lamisil digger--officially Digger the Dermatophyte--was a pioneer in pharma characters. It was first in a new generation that wasn't afraid to get "ugly." Since then, of course, we've had mucus pals, bouncing bladders, colons that eat dinner and travel bags labeled constipation, but back then, Digger was an originator who pushed the boundaries further than had ever been seen before.

Here's how The Wall Street Journal explained the ad: "Digger popped open a toenail much like a car hatchback, and dove underneath for fun and games. Later, a giant Lamisil tablet rolled over Digger--again and again. The clever animation and strong gross-out factor made the spot stand apart from the rest."

Meanwhile, well-known marketing journalist Rob Walker called the work "Lamisil's stomach-turning ad" in Slate, while USA Today polled consumers to discover that the Digger ads were seen as the worst on TV that year, mostly because it made "shivers run up and down" their spines.

The Digger was first in another way as well--as one of the first characters to get slapped down by the FDA. Just 5 months after the campaign broke, the FDA asked Novartis ($NVS) to take the TV ad off the air because it "believed the spot overplayed the drug's effectiveness while minimizing its risks. The drug doesn't always cure the problem completely. Novartis was asked to remove the ad from TV, though print and Internet advertising continued," the WSJ wrote.

(Novartis turned down FiercePharmaMarketing's request for an interview, noting that the brand team was not interested in "emphasizing the Digger character at this time.")

There was a third first, too--one likely more important to the future of characters in the pharma industry. Digger was the first to parlay the gross-out factor into branded drug success. When the campaign bowed in April 2003, Lamisil was bringing in about $33 million in new prescriptions; just three months later in July, new Lamisil prescriptions tallied almost $44 million, the WSJ reported, further noting that when the ad went off TV, monthly totals decreased.

Even Walker's assessment of Digger's "horrifying" behavior ended with: "… More of us will see the likes of Digger than ever wanted to. And if, some day, we find that our toenails are suddenly yellow and flaky, we will quite likely remember him. We might remember him like a bad dream, but we'll remember him. And that's all the makers of Lamisil really want." -- Beth Snyder Bulik

- read WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see the Slate opinion

For more:
FDA backs pediatric warnings on Zyprexa, Lamisil
Novartis pulls OTC meds made at troubled plant


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