Global vs. U.S. Marketing: Raising the Bar on “Cool”

It is rare to find any healthcare ads among those end-of-the-year “Best of…” lists compiling the funniest, most viral or just most liked ads from the past year. Healthcare ads are just not considered cool. And yes, we know, there are regulations. But does that really mean we are regulated to see the same types of ads year in and year out. We asked a cross section of U.S. and global marketers:

  • Is there anything that U.S. marketers can learn from marketers in other countries that can help them up their game and create more compelling healthcare campaigns?
  • Can you describe a recent campaign that you thought was cool and why?
  • What is something you have seen marketers in other countries do that you wish you could here? What’s holding you back?
  • How can new or emerging technology help to make your campaign a little cooler?
  • What is the best piece of advice you would offer to marketers who are interested in creating “cooler” campaigns?

Matt Connor

f4_think-tank_matt-connor - Copy

The provocative unveiling of the new Weight Watchers “All You Can Eat” campaign during Super Bowl XLIX was anything but what you would expect from the traditional marketer. No “doing it together.” No points. No brand, in fact, until the closing frame. Instead, it was a stream of franticly edited food-related images all too familiar to the American public—familiar because they’ve been pushed upon us every day via TV, cinema, restaurant promotions and even retail bulk-buying chains.

It was a perfectly timed, perfectly executed reframing of our relationship with food as not friend, but as addiction. With the smooth voice-over provided by Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame and wittily underscored by Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, the spot leveraged everything from the cultural zeitgeist of its day to timing to drive home the point. Major cities fight everything from the use of trans fats in food frying to super-sized sugar drinks, and Weight Watchers disrupted a cultural binge-fest of hot wings and beer with the brand’s arresting tale of American food addiction.

As images of gluttony and Frankenfood flashed across the screen, the spot threw us into an eerie mania; a simulation of addiction concocted from two elements: Sci-fi nightmare and blunt reality.

The formula was broken. Support, community, pep talks and endorsements were out. Brazen truths, layers of cultural storytelling and a fluff-cutting new tagline were in.

Storytelling is good when it is authentically relevant to culture, emotions and the moment of exposure. Storytelling is great when it is also brave and revealing. Consumers have lost their appetite for safe and vanilla. Healthcare marketers tend to cut corners creatively and are terrified to take risks. As consumption of healthcare changes, so too should our approach to provoking a conversation.

Shaheed Peera


Marketers should go beyond 60-second TV commercials, print ads and websites and think about how they can create brand experiences and partnerships that help to improve their audiences’ lives and communities for the better. This is where the opportunity to create more compelling and creative work lies.

I love the Home Smart Home ambient experience by Samsung in which consumers physically rearrange the rooms of a house to meet their unique preferences. Samsung showcased their new generation of intuitive home appliances by collaborating with leading architects, engineers and designers to make a house that could take on dozens of different configurations. A house that, like Samsung’s intuitive products, adapted to suit the individual.

Instead of telling you how innovative they are, Samsung showed you. The partnership with the collaborators also enhanced their credibility. The organic PR and social media coverage around it was spectacular. The take-away for healthcare marketers?

1. Brands need to stop telling audiences how great they are—and start showing them.

2. We need to move away from the mindset that campaigns are one-off iconic visual print ads with a swoosh at the bottom of the page. We need to start creating brand stories and deliver experiences that give people a reason to engage, trust and care.

No matter how innovative the technology is, if it doesn’t fit in with the brand’s story and objectives, it will only ever be a short-lived, expensive, one-off gimmick. As long as the technology enhances a brand’s story, versus retro-fitting it for the sake of being cool, then it can help improve a campaign.

Time is your customer’s most valued commodity. If you expect and want consumers’ time, you better make it count. Generally, it will cost you the same to make something forgettable as it does to create something memorable and even sharable.

Jason D. Menzo


Healthcare is not the only sector that faces heavy regulation. So do financial services and the insurance industries. But in terms of “cool advertising,” pharma clearly lags behind other industries. How do we change that? It starts with an acknowledgement that we are allowed to have fun, bold, aggressive and sexy brands.

Creative brands don’t just happen. They are born out of hearts and minds of professionals who have a passion to create them. Allow yourself to push the envelope and see how far you can take it. That doesn’t mean making false claims or ignoring your product label, of course, but we often take the pushback on claims as a mandate to make boring campaigns. That should not be the case. A middle-aged couple walking down the beach with their golden retriever is not an impactful execution of an insight—no matter the product!

I always start this process by asking my agency to take free reign on creative concepts and then push them to be bold, aggressive, funny or sexy. They will thank you for that—and relish in the creative freedom. The problem most of us have is in putting restrictions on our concepts too early. Later in the process, you can pull back and ensure compliance.

For example, I like the current Crestor DTC campaign featuring the song “Low Rider” by War (1975). The brand incorporates a fun, instantly recognizable song into the background while a jubilant woman dances through her day because she was “down with Crestor.” On message, on demographic and target segment, oh…and fun. The fact that something this simple made such a difference tells you how “low” the bar really is for our industry!

Scott Simpson


Clients frequently ask for campaigns that generate buzz and have pass-along power…smart to ask for, but everyone must align on two things. First, an effective campaign is really effective communication, which means creating a dialogue that fosters shared meaning. This means not speaking at someone, which too many brands too often do. Second, the way we most intuitively communicate starts with emotion, not fact. Great communication that people actually want to engage with and share, whether funny (cat videos), profound (a book recommendation) or even commercial (Dove’s “Real Beauty”) creates feelings we can’t resist.

Ad legend Bill Bernbach observed, “Emotions make you feel, and only feeling leads to action. Nothing works in the making of a sale like a consumer in a receptive attitude. Facts and knowledge are not enough to persuade. As a matter of fact they are often obstacles to persuasion.” The modern day extension is that the feeling marketers deliver needs to move audiences beyond “liking” to “wanting”—motivating people to want to engage with our brand.

Basing campaign conversations on feelings rather than facts doesn’t just help cut through ad clutter, it helps us make more meaningful connections in our lives. I remember meeting a girl at a busy time in both our lives and distinctly not spouting facts about myself. We just had a conversation. She’s now my wife…so that conversation must have evoked powerful feelings! Modern Renaissance woman Maya Angelou nailed it when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So when your clients ask for a great ad campaign, consider having a conversation that starts with how they want their brand to make their audience feel.

Allison Ceraso


Remember that moment during your post-college European backpacking tour—maybe sparked by the sight of a nude beach or an irreverent billboard advertising yogurt—when you realized how different America is from other countries? We’ve always been a little prudish. And we take ourselves too seriously. This cultural attitude trickles down to advertising. Far from iconic and daring cowboys, Americans want to play it safe. Budgets and stakes are big. Careers are on the line. Not exactly a climate that encourages risk taking.

A friend and colleague, Helen Godley from Havas Lynx Manchester, pointed out that only in America (and New Zealand) do we promote Rx to the public, causing brands to be all things to all people: Disease awareness, product consideration, functional brand feature and patient benefit. Outside the U.S., the most rewarded healthcare ads tout disease awareness. Our way leaves ideas unfocused and self-serving. Disease awareness is more sincere and provocative.

Of course, more obvious restrictions exist. Take the coolest car ad you can find. Now throw five paragraphs of safety information and warnings on it and make all the text the same size. Suddenly—not so cool anymore.

If after all that, the concept hasn’t yet been diluted, there’s one more opportunity: Market research. We wonder why one idea isn’t doing all things for all people. We forget that America is a culture designed around heterogeneity. With a smaller, more homogenous target, our European friends are better able to connect to their audience in a focused and meaningful way.

Is there hope for healthcare advertising? Absolutely, but we have to remember advertising isn’t a brochure or a sales aid—it’s meant to move people. If we remember that, we may be able to move ourselves from the state of U.S. healthcare advertising.

Mike Hartman


Great work is everywhere. But far more work isn’t cutting it. And the difference is ideas. And exceptional craft. But mostly ideas. Real, honest-to-goodness ones. The great work has them. The rest, well, not so much.

Many marketers seem to have forgotten the power of great ideas or they’re just too frightened these days. Fear dominates the industry. Fear of taking risks, pushing regulatory, getting a letter. So it doesn’t help that great ideas are largely terrifying. That’s because great ideas are monsters. Truth is, if you’ve heard it before it’s got virtually no shot at being special, and by definition that means that everything else will come complete with something wiggly that could set folks off. It also doesn’t help that technology has become somewhat interchangeable with ideas. And that’s another trap marketers face today. It can be quite easy to mistake buzzy technology for an idea—confusing execution with concept.

To hunt down monster ideas: Do your homework. Soak up everything about a space and dig deep into the data. But don’t stop there. Data are just the beginning—the better brief, if you will. Insights are buried within, and those aren’t ideas either. Insights are truths that shape and steer proper conceptual thinking. Quirky and easy to miss. Very often leading to first ideas that quickly get tossed away. And inside or beneath that discarded silliness is where the magic lies. So don’t think about rules. Constraints can be constraints or they can force innovation. It’s easy to say there are too many rules or other countries have more or less freedom, but none of that really matters. Scary ideas do.

Jeremy Perrott


Why are there so few examples of “cool” health advertising in the U.S.? Well let’s first define COOL.

As President of Lions Health’s Pharma jury last year, I saw some excellent work from around the world. Egypt produced a funny insight-driven ad for erectile dysfunction in which a goat’s head replaced an idiot man’s head highlighting him as a fool. It stood out, broke rules and made a difference. Another came from Canada. What made the campaign so cool? It did not suffer the protracted ramble of defense and over-qualification the U.S. market would have demanded even though the countries have similar regulations. They cleverly got around the legal trapdoor by using the rules. They didn’t make a claim. They didn’t mention the name. Just let the consumer engage, and connect the dots.

Now imagine if you could see a cold coming. Or the flu. Or even a deadly virus. What would that mean and how would you react? That’s exactly what Japan addressed with an innovative app. By simply tracking what people were complaining about on Twitter they were able to see the virus clouds hanging over Japan. The app not only predicted and informed where potential diseases would hit, but it allowed the pharma company who owned it to get the right medications to the right areas before the viruses took over. Now that’s cool.

In fact, all of these examples help define “cool,” proving that cool ideas will and should make us uncomfortable. But to achieve this in the U.S. we have to believe and want to change how we operate. This is not a one way street. Agency and client are in this together. That means working closer together to establish better briefs, better insights and higher expectations of truly brilliant creative that the world says, “Shit. That’s cool!”


You May Also Like

ELITE Transformational Leader Frank X. Powers of Dudnyk

Frank X. Powers President Dudnyk Creating a Culture of Creativity Do you want to ...

Physicians Are Already Excited and Willing to Prescribe PCSK9s

Doctors are already considering switching their patients from statins to PCSK9 inhibitors—and no such ...

The Creativity Challenge: Take Your Campaigns Up A Notch

Exactly what is that certain quality that lifts a pharma, biotech or medical device ...