The rhino in the room: healthcare advertising has problems
What are some people who work in healthcare advertising thinking?
This is not (entirely) a facetious question. I really would like to know what goes through their heads when they create their ads. Because these days when I flick through a medical magazine or journal, I find myself utterly mystified by half the ads in it. And not just because I’ve been out of clinical medicine for a while.
While perusing the recent edition of a popular journal for GPs, I saw no fewer than four ads that featured, as their creative centrepiece, a rhinoceros. In one case, the rhino was engaged in a vaguely sensual and undeniably intense mutual stare with a young woman. I couldn’t discern any connection between this image and the product it purported to represent, but who knows? Maybe the drug’s incidental benefit is to enhance one’s capabilities as a rhino-whisperer.
Now, I don’t have anything against rhinoceri. No doubt there are times when a rhino would be the perfect visual metaphor to demonstrate a drug’s benefits. But I think it’s fair to say – and you’ll just have to trust me on this – that none of these ads represented such a time.
And remember, this was not just one lumbering, misplaced metaphor that had wandered off from the savannah and into healthcare adland, but FOUR! I’ll admit I haven’t conducted formal hypothesis testing on this, but I would hazard a guess that the statistical probability of four rhinoceros-based advertisements appearing in one 60-page medical publication, completely by chance, would be on the low-ish side. Evidently, healthcare advertisers are in the business of rhino poaching.
But why? Why so much homogeneity in healthcare advertising?
The obvious answer is that it might be working. Perhaps this, ahem, herd mentality is achieving fantastic results for clients. If so, then great – there’s nothing wrong with being unoriginal in advertising. But my suspicion is that much of this stuff is simply doing a ‘good enough’ job. After all, it’s not as if the ROI of these ads is threatened by the presence of clearly differentiated alternatives. Different rhinos, maybe, but the same beast.
Another potential answer is that healthcare advertising is subject to relatively strict regulation. I see this as some justification – but only some. Yes, advertisers in our industry face greater constraints than those in many other areas, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for creativity. Arguably, creative thinking is even more important under such constraints.
To be fair, some healthcare advertising is very good indeed. Some of it demonstrably increases awareness, meets its marketing objectives and supports better therapeutic outcomes. Some of it wins awards. But from my observations and experience in healthcare communications, this kind of advertising is very much the exception.
Healthcare advertising can be better. Much better. But the current herd mentality won’t get it there.
So I challenge advertisers in the healthcare space to do things differently. And if you know of any ads that truly are ‘different beasts’, feel free to tweet us at @wellmark_health.
By Ryan Wallman, Head of Copy at Wellmark. Ryan has qualifications in marketing, medicine and copywriting, and has previously served on the judging panel of the Global Awards for Healthcare Advertising.
Connect with Ryan on Google+ at +Ryan Wallman