According to GSK, which manufactures Excedrin Migraine medication, more than 36m people in the US alone suffer from migraine headaches, but those who don’t often struggle to understand just how debilitating they can be.

So the pharma giant turned to AR and built what it says is the world’s first migraine simulator in an effort to help non-sufferers understand that a migraine is more than “just a headache.”

The AR headset gives non-migraine sufferers the ability to experience common migraine symptoms, such as visual distortions and sensitivity to light or aura.

As part of GSK’s The Migraine Experience campaign, migraine sufferers were given the opportunity to invite a friend, family member or co-worker to use the migraine simulator to walk a day in their shoes.

The results were impressive…

Thanks to the power of the technology, the non-sufferers were able to see what the migraine sufferer actually goes through – leading to some amazing moments.

Across the board, non-sufferers reacted with feelings of shock and surprise (‘I can’t believe you function like that!’), quickly turning to true empathy (‘I’m so sorry you go through this.’ ‘I’ll never doubt you again.’)

Those reactions were captured on camera, making for high-impact video.

One of the videos has racked up more than half a million views on YouTube, and according to FiercePharma’s Beth Snyder Bulik, more than 11m views on Facebook.

All told, Bulik says The Migraine Experience videos have been viewed close to 20m times and generated more than 285,000 social engagements.

For its work, which took a year to put together, GSK received three awards at the Cannes Lions Health show.

Storytelling at its best

Healthcare marketers face many difficulties, but they also have some of the greatest opportunities to tell powerful stories.

Indeed, storytelling could be one of the keys for pharma companies looking to get consumers back on side.

GSK’s Migraine Experience is a great example of the type of storytelling that pharma marketers sorely need to embrace.

While not perfect in a comprehensive sense, it’s still capable of being compelling: individuals suffering from a difficult condition are able to physically share with the people around them a part of what they experience thanks to a clever application of technology.

Most importantly, the focus of the creative is not a pill, and there are no silly scenes of people walking in a forest while a voice says, “Ask your doctor if…” 

But The Migraine Experience doesn’t just demonstrate how pharma brands can tell better stories; it also demonstrates how technology is changing the way marketers can tell stories.

While GSK obviously can’t widely distribute the AR headsets it built for The Migraine Experience, it has built iOS and Android apps that can be used with viewers like Google Cardboard to provide a similar experience.

With this app, GSK is making it possible for large numbers of people who don’t get migraines to walk a mile in the shoes of a migraine sufferer – a new way to tell a story through simulated first-hand experience.

It’s not hard to imagine that there are other conditions for which AR and VR could be similarly applied, or to imagine a future in which AR and VR apps help individuals do some initial self-diagnosis when confronted with symptoms that they’re unsure of.