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Strategies around the Negative Side Effects of Pharmaceutical Marketing

It is a regular task of the pharmaceutical marketer to justify what they are doing. In a similar vein to alcohol and tobacco marketing, anything pertaining to the health of consumers will always be under the public and media magnifying glass.

 Take the case of eyelash thickening treatment, Latisse, back in 2010. Its spokesperson and model at the time was actress and celebrity, Brooke Shields – an attractive, healthy-looking woman with beautiful eyes; she is a clear choice for any marketer hoping to glamorise the product. At the time, however, the Latisse website was accused of underrepresenting a number of complaints about negative side-effects of the treatment, such as change in eye colour, hair growth in places where the treatment had not been applied and cornea infections. The issue here is that a lot of emphasis was placed on the spokesperson, Brooke Shields, and the positive aspects of the treatment, and that not enough effort was made to warn consumers of possible side effects. All drugs and treatments come with the risk of side effects, and all negative side effects are a marketer’s nightmare. Most would agree that it was Latisse’s obligation to make the information of their side-effects easier for the public to access – even though it would, no doubt, hurt their marketing campaign. This is a drawback of pharmaceutical marketing; it’s a simple as that. 

 (It is definitely worth mentioning that Latisse have addressed their previous issues and warn any users of possible side effects.) You can read more about Latisse’s side effects, here.

 It is the prerogative of any marketer to promote their product. This is marketing at its most basic level. But where is the line when people’s health is at risk? Where is the line when it is a better standard of health and wellbeing that you are selling? Dr Steven Nissen famously criticised Pharmaceutical marketing, claiming: 

 “It’s almost impossible for the public to actually parse the ads and come to their own independent conclusions.”

 Many marketers tend to disagree with Nissen’s polarised attack on pharmaceutical marketing. An acceptable middle ground can be achieved where marketing and responsibility can occur – and this almost always comes from full disclosure of any side effects or undesired results from the products. It’s even a good marketing strategy to disclose all negative side effects, as any scandal could be potentially lethal to the campaign. 

 So, with a heightened sensitivity to pharmaceutical products, what are marketers allowed to target? The answer is different depending on who you talk to. But one angle that has increased astronomically, is online marketing aimed directly at physicians. Between 2004 and 2008 there was a 20% increase in the amount of doctors that use the internet to research the best and cheapest pharmaceutical products for their patients. I have no doubt that when the results come in for 2012/13, this number will have increased exponentially. This means that a lot of pharmaceutical marketers are aware of the increased importance of online marketing and the immediate impact of their brand and logo on their websites. 


A great example of this awareness is Guerilla Communications’ recent handling of Rowlands Pharmacy’s ‘V’ brand. Guerilla Communications are a pharmaceutical marketing company from the North East of England.
VHCSWithout attempting to glamorise or mislead its target consumers, Guerilla have been able to push the ‘V’ brand ahead by using a Scandinavian marketing principle that less is more and that neat-looking, simplistic brands stand out in the clutter of today’s marketplace. The ‘V’ stands for vitality and positively represents the range of vitamins and dietary supplements. This is an example of a direct approach to an area that pharmaceutical marketers are allowed to manipulate, and the verdict is still out as to the long-term benefits. One thing can be said, however, attention to detail at brand level is effective no matter what product you are trying to sell.

E45A similar approach can be found in eczema cream E45 (image on the right). This minimalistic brand is very memorable and the company have done very well indeed. This, in my view, is because they have put their efforts into the brand and let the quality of the product establish itself. Perhaps E45’s successful approach to branding is a guide as to the future success of V.

 Obviously E45 and V aren’t prescribed medicine, so they are a safer avenue for pharmaceutical marketers. For the strong stuff, however, the issue arises when the quality of the product is questionable. What do we, as pharmaceutical marketers, do in this instance? Do we, like the lawyer defending an obviously guilty criminal, keep quiet and ignore the doubt in the back of our minds, or do we lose business and refuse to market a pharmaceutical product of dubious quality. This is a massive question and one I hope all of us are attempting to answer. The future of pharmaceutical marketing relies upon answering this question correctly. Otherwise, it could dwindle and die in a similar way to the tobacco marketing industry.

Med-dividerPeter Wright is an online marketing executive from Ireland, currently living and working in the North of England. Peter visited Canada on a rugby tour in his schoolboy days, and he found Canadian rugby players to be significantly bigger than Irish rugby players. Apart from an interest in marketing, Peter studied philosophy in Glasgow University and, thus, he is always keen to explore why we do what we do in the marketing world and the ethics behind our marketing practises. Writing is one of Peter's true passions, and writing about marketing makes a lot of sense for him. He hopes you enjoy his musings, or that they at least make you think a little.

Twitter: @PeterWrightMW



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