Why It’s So Hard to Do Great Creative Work in Healthcare Advertising

I work at an advertising agency that focuses almost exclusively on healthcare brands and pharmaceuticals. I happen to think my agency does some of the best work in the category but it’s a category that is universally accepted to do some of the worst creative work in advertising. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about but just in case, think ‘woman walking her golden retriever on the beach’ or ‘man finishing a hike and looking straight into the camera to say “with [Drug X], I got control of my moderate-to-severe [disease] and now I have freedom to live life to the fullest for moments that matter.”’ Cue safety fair balance.

The conventional wisdom is that the reason healthcare advertising is so bad is because the FDA puts so many restrictions on what a healthcare brand can say in its advertising. While it’s true that the FDA can be strict, these regulations are not the real reason creative work in healthcare is so bad. The real reasons have much more to do with our perception of the audience for the creative work and what that work is promising.

I’ve worked as both an HCP (Healthcare Professional) strategist and a DTC (Direct-to-Consumer) healthcare strategist and each audience has its own unique factor that gets in the way of good work. For HCP advertising, the audience is usually doctors and in each medical specialty, there are a few leading doctors in the US that tend to influence the rest of their specialty (these are what we often call “Key Opinion Leaders” or “KOLs”). Because of the influence of these KOLs, pharma companies will partner with them to get advice on how they should bring their new therapy to market. KOLs are awesome resources and provide great guidance on 95% of what it takes to market a new therapy to their specialty but where they often fall short is in judging creative work (a creative concept or a big idea). The purpose of creative when advertising to doctors is to grab the doctor’s attention so that they look more closely at a new option available for their patients and to get the doctor to think about a medical condition in a slightly new way. But the KOLs are already paying really close attention to new developments in their field and they’re already on the cutting edge of their specialty. So showing a KOL a creative concept is often met with a response like, “Why would you even show this? We don’t need any of this fancy advertising stuff, just show us the data and a happy patient.” And since this KOL is, in some sense, the most important audience for the pharma company (‘she is after all, the leading cardiologist in the country’), they understandably acquiesce and promptly contact the talent agency to find the perfect looking golden retriever for the sunset beach shot. This dynamic doesn’t exist in the consumer advertising world. There is no leading US butt-wiper who can tell Charmin he doesn’t care about the dancing bears, he just wants to see the strength-when-wet data.

DTC healthcare advertising also has a unique factor that stifles great creative work: ‘the seriousness of the disease.’ Make no mistake, all of the diseases that the advertised therapies treat are serious and each has a unique and horrible way it impacts a sufferer’s life. But too often, we conflate the seriousness of a disease with what creative work is acceptable when talking about it. This reaction is completely understandable. We hear patients in research detail the heart-breaking impact the disease has on their life and we think, ‘we can’t do something cute or funny or whimsical or illustrated, this is a serious disease.’ But this thinking is misguided. The objective of creativity is to help people see something in their lives in a new way. The more serious something is, the more important it is, the more negative the impact it has on someone’s life, the more we should be using creativity to inspire them and to help them see their disease in a new way that might help limit its impact, not less.

The final, and most critical, reason it’s so hard to do great creative work in healthcare advertising is that the promise of almost all healthcare advertising is a return to normalcy. There are exceptions but generally, advertising promises that a product or service can solve a problem for the audience in a unique way. In the consumer advertising world, this promise can be different even within the same category. Take cars for example: Mercedes promises you the height of luxury, BMW promises you the power of the most advanced machine, Subaru promises you safety in an inherently unsafe world. But for healthcare brands, it doesn’t matter what disease or problem the therapy is treating, the promise is almost always to get you back to normal (or as close to normal as possible). So, what does normal look like? Maybe a walk on the beach? An afternoon hike? With this framing, it’s understandable that so many healthcare brands end up in this creative place.

I don’t have all the answers for how to overcome these challenges, especially the promise-of-normalcy issue, but if the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, the second step is understanding why the problem exists. Creativity has the potential to have an immensely positive impact in the healthcare space but not if we don’t do it well. If we can at least understand why creative work in healthcare is so bad, maybe we can do a better job of making it good.

Brand Strategist | American History Enthusiast | Enjoyer of Bourbon | Human Being Out in the World