The pharma industry may not be able to use fictional heroes or loveable mascots as advertising icons (for fear of FDA disapproval), but it does have a long history of using iconic images to reach both patients and professionals.

The advertising icon is a great American tradition. Its definition is that of any single image or symbol that represents something of greater significance than itself, embodying attributes that connect to the user’s greater purposes.

Advertising icons specifically have evolved to represent qualities that influence purchasing decisions: differentiation, value, superiority, and individualization. Advertising Age recently released its list of the Top 10 Consumer Ad Icons of the 20th century —images that have had the most powerful resonance in the marketplace. The criteria included effectiveness, longevity, “recognizability,” and cultural impact. Some of these classic icons included The Marlboro Man— Marlboro cigarettes (1); The Green Giant—Green Giant vegetables (3); The Energizer Bunny— Eveready Energizer batteries (5); The Pillsbury Doughboy—Assorted Pillsbury foods (6); and The Michelin Man—Michelin tires (8).

Michelin Man: Many of today’s branded DTC pharma icons are descendants from Bib, The Michelin Man who first appeared in 1898.

In the pharmaceutical industry, the advertising icon has been much maligned and often misunderstood, but it has as much of a history as Bib, The Michelin Man who first appeared in 1898 (photo, top). The first drug advertising appeared in the 1880s and in those days drug promotion was a free-for-all where copywriters could claim just about anything anyone would believe. Restrictions were lax—even easier than referencing “data on file.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not begin to regulate prescription drug advertisements until October 10, 1962, when it passed the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments.


Pharmaceutical icons started with the same basic premise as the consumer product icon: to symbolize an advertised drug’s desired attribute. Icons gained traction as visual tools in pharmaceutical promotion because physicians were even busier than consumers, and they had a lot of different agents and compounds to remember. These icons became like mental shorthand, helping to keep the drugs—especially newer ones—top of mind. For pharmaceutical companies, advertising icons became a way to make brand messages compelling, concise, and portable. They helped maintain a visual connection between ads, the sales materials that reps used, the samples, and the significant branded office presence.

Fast forward a few decades and you’ll find that the office presence is all but gone, however, the professional icon, when done well, remains a powerful marketing tool. Why? Because these days it not only serves the same purposes it did before, but the icon also unites multichannel media efforts the way it used to unite the sales call with marketing efforts. In 2012, the best icons are still powerful and portable, translating well in any size, from giant-sized convention panels to smartphone screens.

The icon is as important as ever in pharmaceutical advertising, but recently may have lost its way a bit. Last year, a study by Getty Images revealed that 83% of the imagery used in healthcare marketing depicts the oft-used “happy patient” shot. (And if you ask me, every shot looks almost the same.) The truth is, even the most beautiful, heart-touching depiction of a patient lacks the power to communicate differentiation in a multichannel world. Conversely, the pharmaceutical icon, when done right—yes, the distant cousin of Tony the Tiger (No. 9 on the Top 10 list)—still has the power to differentiate quickly and memorably, even when the story being communicated is as complicated as that for a pharmaceutical treatment or device.

The advantage of having character icons that are descendants from The Michelin Man in branded DTC advertising is that you can powerfully represent diseases or conditions with a single character. The Lamisil toenail fungus monster, Gerdie the Protonix nighttime GERD monster, and the Mucinex mucus monster are just like those classic animated icons, only with a twist. They can’t be cute, fictional heroes like the Energizer Bunny. Using an icon in that way would indicate a claim of efficacy, which would get you a letter from the FDA. The DTC pharma character icon is very often a disease-state villain.


Mucinex Mucus Monster: The DTC pharma character icon is often a disease-state villain like the Mucinex Monster, because heroic character icons could result in a letter from the FDA.


The professional icon is often harder hitting, represents a disease challenge to be treated, introduces a significant new mechanism of action, or provides an emotional representation of a drug’s benefits. The professional icon, unlike the DTC icon, is far less often portrayed as a happy character—which may appear too frivolous or humorous. Of course, the list of what this icon should not do (like over promise, reach beyond indication, imply superiority, etc.) may be longer than the list of what it can represent. Still, the professional icon remains an important tool for capturing the attention and mindshare of a busy physician, and for quickly conveying a clear benefit in the decision to prescribe.

Primary care and general physicians get bombarded with promotional images. For these physicians, icons tend to be more patient- or therapy-success oriented. If you see a happy character icon in an Rx promotion, it is usually aimed at PCPs, GPs or pediatricians. A few notable exceptions, like the Rocephin apple (see page 9) and Bix the Biaxin bulldog, broke new ground by borrowing their icons’ relevant attributes, appealing directly to physicians on a clinical/emotional level, rather than using patient focus to conjure an emotional appeal.

When it comes to communicating with specialists, icons can, and should, provide a greater depth of meaning and scientific significance. Rarely does a character icon. Rather these icons are often more metaphorically disease state-based and feature a challenge to be solved. For example, in urology, icons that portray increased function (Hytrin balloon, see page 9) have been used with great effectiveness.

And after all, effectiveness is the name of the game. From Tony the Tiger to The Toenail Fungus Monster, the icon is all about getting your brand to stick in the busy mind of your consumer. Perhaps the ultimate proof of the enduring power of advertising icons? 130 years later, they are still going strong. ■


Bix the Biaxin Bulldog: For the most part professional icons tend to be patient- or therapy-success oriented, but there are a few exceptions such as Bix, who appealed directly to physicians on a clinical/emotional level.


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