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  • Jennifer (Davis) Roush

The one time you can believe what you see on TV: How pharma makes ads


If you put on the news at 6pm on a weekday night, chances are you're going to see a drug ad. In fact, you might see quite a few of them. That's because in 2019, pharma companies are going directly to the patients in hopes they will go to their doctor and make an informed decision together on their treatment plan.


The problem is, some medications and conditions can be difficult to talk about in a 30-90 second window and medical/legal limitations mean your story may end up being less engaging and worthy of a spoof in the next Family Guy.


I was presented with this exact problem when I was tasked with creating a tv ad for a very difficult and high science medication for oncology. I was working with a fairly inexperienced med/legal team and in fact, had a lot to learn myself. How do you say everything you need to say in a simple, concise way, all in less than 90 seconds?


You cut copy. And then you cut some more.

I started with writing my "perfect world" script. The one that said everything we needed and wanted to say, regardless of the timing. And then I started trimming. I found statements that could be cut down or explained in detail in on-screen copy and used acronyms for the more complicated words that we knew most experienced patients already knew.


You rethink the ISI

I know. The ISI is the ISI. But by working closely with our client's regulatory person, I was able to trim the ISI significantly to a length that was a lot easier to work with. The regulatory person provided me with the "perfect world" ISI she wanted and then we sent edits back and forth until we came up with something we were both happy with.


You stay away from the typical "pharma" visuals

You know those ads. They are the ones that don't visually say a single thing about the product or the audience. They could be any ad, for any drug. So no couples walking on the beach. No nondescript, smiling patient. Be creative. Be original. Don't fall into the pharma ad trap.


You find the perfect director

We knew going in that we wanted this ad to be emotional. So we painstakingly went through numerous director reels and landed on the ones that brought out the feels. The right directors were the one who directed a commercial that caused an entire room of people to be silent.


You hire the actors with chemistry

It's important to have chemistry between the actors if you want the audience to believe they have any type of relationship. That might even mean finding a mother/daughter or wife/husband duo that already have a connection or taking the time before the shoot for the actors to get acquainted. Either way, you don't want your audience thinking about the relationship between the actors instead of the message you're trying to deliver.


You recognize that silence is golden

Sometimes a single word doesn't even need to be said to get the idea across. Just seeing the expression on someone's face can say a thousands things that can't be properly put into words.


Working on a tv ad was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career and quickly turned into one of my favorite types of projects to work. I learned that you don't need to expect pharma ads to be absent of creativity or so bad that it turns into the next SNL skit. With the right creative team, you can make a great tv ad for just about any drug -- even the high science ones with data that makes your head spin.

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