Is Your Message Lost among the Rose Petals?


Why do so many DTC ads seem to feature pictures of flowers and people walking in the park? I can understand using a flower in an ad for a prescription allergy treatment, but what does it have in common with a medication for arthritis or chemotherapy?

Too often the DTC ad’s message is obscured because graphic design takes precedence over content. The content is lost among the rose petals. A consumer needs to know if you’re promoting garden tools or a medication.

Pharmaceutical companies are conditioned to expect ad agencies to supply them with sample designs at the proposal stage–even before they set the first word of content to paper. That approach has led to many ads that make you wonder what the illustration has to do with the advertised product.

In the past, that hasn’t been such a critical problem. Marketers targeted the ads only at health professionals, who already understand the generic name, the indications, and the symptomatology of the disease the drug is indicated to treat. In many of those ads, the sole purpose of the illustration was to attract their attention.

In sharp contrast, development of DTC ads aimed at consumers requires a completely different approach because consumers lack the training of health professionals. Marketers can’t expect them to understand anything more than something “hurts” or “doesn’t feel right.” Therefore, a good DTC ad will speak directly to symptoms the consumer can recognize and identify with.

Call to Action

How many DTC messages are ineffective because the design is locked in before the message is developed? Could that be the reason so many ads feature pictures of natural settings? They may be “pretty,” but they are unrelated to a consumer “call to action” about the product.

Marketers should ask these important questions about what kind of action they want their messages to incite:

Do you want consumers to:
  • recognize their symptoms?
  • make an appointment with a doctor?
  • call the toll-free number or look at your web page?
  • assess their health risk status?
  • use your product correctly?
Mixed Messages

I’m looking at a colorful full-page picture of a smiling, apparently healthy woman watering her roses. The ad promotes a medication to treat chemotherapy-induced anemia. I wonder how many consumers even realize that the picture is connected with the full page of text that faces it. The same picture could just as well be used to advertise “Sally’s Rose Fertilizer” or “Wally’s Watering Cans.”

Consumers are concerned about their symptoms. That is why they are so receptive to DTC ads that speak directly to their medical problems. No wonder the Prilosec ad showing the poor soul in obvious distress from his heartburn is so effective. The reader says, “That’s me.” The connection has been made.

Compare that with the ad that uses the image of a woman watering flowers. The picture’s message seems to be, “Life is rosy.” How does that hit home to a woman weakened by chemotherapy who is flipping through a magazine and sees this ad? Will this ad even catch her attention? How does the picture relate to her problem? She’s not going to identify with being outside, smiling, and watering flowers. And how could she ever lift such a huge watering can? She may be too fatigued to even cook dinner.

The advertiser has to get that woman’s attention by speaking directly to her, as well as other chemotherapy patients, through the skillful blending of design and content. Perhaps the reader would be more attracted to an ad that shows a woman with enough energy to cook that dinner. Whatever the illustration, the ad would have more impact if it were integrated with the content.

Another ad I question is one for an arthritis medicine. It shows a smiling, healthy, middle-aged woman sitting on the beach. The tagline for the picture is, “It works for me.” The ad emphasizes that the product can save the consumer money and that once-daily dosing makes it easier to take.

Unfortunately, the consumer doesn’t know what to take the product for. The only reference to arthritis is buried deep in a paragraph and says, “As with other prescription arthritis medications…” My concern is that many consumers with arthritis would never bother to read this ad because the picture gives no hint about the woman’s problem.

Content Comes First

As with the chicken and the egg, the question is: Which comes first–the design or the content?

There’s no doubt in my mind–content must come first. The content sets the stage for the design. The first step is to identify the message the ad should convey. After that, marketers need to construct every aspect of the ad, including the design and illustrations, with an eye to communicating that message. If marketers fail to do that–if they develop design and content separately–the ad will have a split personality with diverse messages that may confuse consumers, rather than motivate them to action. If this is not done–if design and content are developed separately–the ad will have a “split personality” with diverse messages that may confuse consumers rather than motivate them to action.

DTC advertisements have tremendous potential to help people understand when it’s time to see the doctor and to help improve patient compliance. This potential can be realized when pharmaceutical companies take steps to ensure that advertisers do not market medications to consumers the same way they have marketed them to health professionals. For consumers, a picture can be worth a thousand words–but it has to be the right picture.

Dr. Dorothy L. Smith is a consumer education expert and president of Consumer Health Information Corporation. The full-service company specializes in patient labeling, program development, and strategic planning for DTC campaigns.

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Published in Pharmaceutical Executive, December 1998. Copyrighted material; All rights reserved.