Thanks in large part to drug pricing controversies, pharma companies have found themselves under scrutiny from the public, government regulators and even physicians.

That isn't stopping pharma companies from pouring big bucks into their marketing campaigns, but increasingly, pharma marketers are turning to unbranded ads in an effort to reach consumers in a more subtle, stealthy way.

As STAT's Rebecca Robbins explained, unbranded ads are "a stealthy and lightly regulated form of drug marketing focused on educating the public about a health condition — which the pharma company just happens to sell a product to treat."

Last month, Merck spent an estimated $9.9m on ads to drive awareness for HPV and shingles, while Mylan spent an estimated $8.5m on ads to boost awareness of severe allergic reactions.

Merck manufactures HPV and shingles vaccines, while Mylan is the company behind the EpiPen, which is an Epinephrine auto-injector used to treat severe allergic reactions.

While the dollars behind unbranded ads still make up a very small fraction of the $6bn-plus pharma companies spend on ads every year, according to Nielsen, spend on unbranded ads is up 15% so far this year.

And the fact that two of the top ten most expensive pharma ad campaigns last month were unbranded suggests that the trend has momentum.

Interestingly, Mylan's unbranded ad campaign came just before the company found itself the target of public outrage over EpiPen price hikes.

A potentially sensible strategy that could backfire

Critics of unbranded campaigns worry that these ads will mislead consumers, who in most cases won't be able to identify the company with a vested financial interest that is behind them.

Additionally, because unbranded ads don't promote a specific drug or treatment, they don't mention risks and side effects, which can be considerable and are often the butt of jokes about pharmaceutical ads.

But a less cynical argument is that unbranded ads offer a healthy compromise.

Instead of encouraging consumers to talk to their doctors about a specific drug, they call attention to a condition and invite consumers to talk to their physicians about the condition.

Yes, the pharma companies behind these unbranded ads often own the market for a condition's treatment, but nonetheless, these ads are arguably more educational than promotional compared to branded counterparts.

Unfortunately, just as they fail to tell stories as effectively as they should, pharma marketers' unbranded ads also tend to fall short by focusing too much on fear.

As STAT's Robbins notes...

If you watch enough unbranded drug ads, you’ll notice a theme: they’re often pretty ominous in tone.

Robbins points to a Mylan ad in which "a young woman is shown with alarming red splotches all over her skin after accidentally ingesting peanuts. She gasps and collapses as her panicked friends try to help."

She also calls attention to a heart failure awareness ad created by Novartis, which promoted dire statistics and drew the scorn of cardiologists.

Some people suggest that the tone of these ads is justified for serious conditions.

But it's entirely possible that a rise in ominous unbranded ads will only offer industry critics and regulators more ammunition to crack down on the ways pharma companies communicate with consumers.

Patricio Robles

Published 2 September, 2016 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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