Are Celebrities and Drugs a Toxic Combination?

Kirsten Korosec
Marketing Health Services
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Key Takeaways
  • ​The risks of celebrity endorsement can outweigh the benefits, and marketers should approach celebrity endorsements with caution.
  • Celebrity campaigns are expensive and a tough sell to consumers.
  • Content marketing, whether it’s directed toward physicians or patients, is a safer option for marketing pharmaceutical products.

Celebrity endorsements are a key element of many brands’ marketing strategies, and pharmaceutical brands are no exception. In February, Dublin-based Shire Pharmaceuticals Inc. tapped former tennis pro Monica Seles to promote its medication, Vyvanse, which is used to help treat binge-eating disorder. Other celebrities who’ve endorsed pharmaceuticals include actress Sally Field for osteoporosis medication Boniva and pro golfer Phil Mickelson for arthritis medication Enbrel. Centering a marketing campaign on a popular and influential celebrity might seem like a smart approach, but how much influence do celebrities have in an industry that relies heavily on medical credibility and trust? With so much at stake, the risks can outweigh the benefits, and marketers should approach celebrity endorsements with caution, experts say. 

“The potential reward is a spokesperson with broad reach that many people follow and who will draw attention—if everything goes well—and this is the key challenge,” says Pam Garfield, vice president and general manager of Seattle-based health care communications consultancy Patient Health Perspectives

One of the biggest risks is a lack of control, which is even more dangerous with the rise of social media, she says. “Any small incident can be blown out of proportion and transmitted around the world in minutes, which is dangerous if the optics are not a good fit with the marketing relationship,” Garfield says.

Celebrity chef Paula Deen became the public face of Bagsvaerd, Denmark-based drugmaker Novo Nordisk's diabetes medication in 2012 when she announced that she had Type 2 diabetes, and endorsed the brand's diabetes drug, Victoza. Deen was the centerpiece of a national initiative to help adults eat healthy and make other small lifestyle changes, but Deen’s decision to reveal her condition three years after her diagnosis—all the while maintaining her brand’s signature high-fat foods on her TV show and in her cookbooks—was immediately attacked by the media. A week after the announcement, a video of Deen eating a cheeseburger went viral, putting the campaign and Novo Nordisk in the crosshairs again. A year later, the company suspended the partnership over a separate incident, in which a discrimination lawsuit revealed Deen had used racist language toward her staff.

“The risk is much greater than ever before,” says David Avitabile, owner of Mana, a Hobe Sound, Fla.-based strategic communications firm focused on science, health care and technology. “Pharmaceutical companies already struggle as an industry with their image.”

Celebrity campaigns are expensive and a tougher sell to consumers, and it’s difficult to trace an increase in product sales to a celebrity campaign, Avitabile says.

There are more effective, data-driven ways to launch products other than celebrity endorsements, says Avitabile, who has advised pharmaceutical clients Merck and Novartis, among others. 

Content marketing, whether it’s directed toward physicians or patients, is a safer option for marketing pharmaceutical products, he says. Brands can collect e-mail addresses and other information that can be passed onto the sales force, and share content that can be disseminated in different ways, including social media, websites, PR outreach initiatives and targeted advertising, Avitabile says.

Another effective approach is to use real patients or people who relate to the drug’s demographic. “We know that 63% of consumers believe pharmaceutical information from peers is credible, even if the peers are not experts,” Garfield says. “An authentic experience shared by a real patient will always trump a celebrity whose job it is to make a saleable impression because when real people share their own stories, they are much more relatable and credible.”

In spite of the risks and challenges, pharmaceutical brands that insist on using a celebrity to promote products should tailor their approaches to the brand’s needs. According to David Ormesher, CEO of Closerlook Inc., a Chicago-based digital marketing agency focused on pharmaceutical brands, the best role for a celebrity—and for marketers, as well—is to promote disease or condition awareness, not a specific brand or drug. However, the approach can backfire, which was the case with Paula Deen, he says.

Disease-awareness campaigns, which are first directed toward medical professionals and then target the consumer side, are a common strategy during the pre-launch period of a drug, Ormesher says. This is best used for a new category or for a disease or condition that’s not easily understood.

Still, disease-awareness campaigns have limitations. “It’s generally not a good tactic if you’re fifth in the market because you’ll just help the top two in the market,” Ormesher says.

According to Avitabile, marketers should first make sure the messaging is aligned with the product and that the celebrity's visibility is maximized across all channels. 

“If you’re going to do it, then you should go full bore because it is expensive and you want to get the most value for money,” Avitabile says. “These days, it’s more about corporate storytelling and brand storytelling. If the celebrity doesn’t align with the story, then don’t do it because you’re just throwing your money away.” 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of the Marketing Health Services​ e-newsletter.​

Author Bio:

Kirsten Korosec
Kirsten Korosec is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz., who covers business, technology and energy.
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