Navigating compliance challenges in pharma advertising strategies 

Pills in a pill container

Pharma ads aren’t trying to be overly clever – just compliant.

My son’s hockey team was down 1-0, and the third period was drawing to a close. I sat in the stands only slightly anxious, as we’d been here before many times before. I was trying to focus on the game, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping on the parents next to me. They were talking about pharmaceutical advertising. As someone who’s worked in pharma advertising for years, my ears perked up.  

“What I don’t get is why they won’t tell us what the drug is for?” said the parent. “It’s all just, ‘See your doctor.’ I mean, What’s with the mystery?!”

“Well, I’m sure there’s a good reason,” said the other parent, oblivious to the score. “Maybe they are trying to be clever.”

I’m grateful there was a youth hockey game to distract me because every fibre of my being longed to leap out of my seat and shout at the top of my lungs: “We’re not being cute! We’re being compliant!”

We’re not cryptic. We’re lawful.

What these parents didn’t understand is that in Canada, direct to consumer, or DTC, marketing is subject to Section C.01.044 of the Food and Drugs Act, which states that if advertising a prescription drug to the general public, only the brand name, the price and quantity of the medication can be referenced. It is quite literally against the law to mention the therapeutic use of a prescription drug in Canadian consumer advertising. Additionally, all pharmaceutical content undergoes rigorous internal reviews – by Medical, Regulatory and Legal Departments – and external evaluation by Ad Standards Canada.

This makes marketing pharma very different from marketing other products. (Imagine trying to make an ad for paper towel and you can’t mention it cleans up spills!) But, DTC is vital because there is a need for pharmaceutical communication and encouraging Canadians to speak with our expert healthcare professionals about disease care needs. Canadian patients want to be educated and empowered with the tools to engage their healthcare providers in dialogue about their health. Pharma ads are an important part of that education.

For example, look at common – and growing – disease like diabetes. According to Diabetes Canada, there are millions of Canadians living with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes (T2D) who don’t know it. T2D is one of the fastest growing diseases, with more than 60,000 new cases diagnosed annually. And the effects of T2D can be debilitating. Encouraging Canadians to speak with a healthcare professional, which is what advertising and communications do, is vital to our health. 

DTC that connects

Because the stakes are high, research-based pharma would love to be more direct with Canadians. But, strict regulations require a different approach. So how can pharma engage their audience in a compelling- complaint- way? Some best-practices our award-winning team at Believeco has used:

  • Memorable creative – As with all advertising, you need content that gets noticed. And because the content will be light on details, there’s room for exciting creative. Compelling images, quirky dialogue or a catchy jingle can really help grab attention. Also, try creating an emotional connection to the viewer by depicting realistic scenarios that speak to shared experience. It all serves to create something memorable for patients and helps encourage them to start a conversation in their physician’s office.
  • Surround sound and inclusivity – Don’t just approach your audience from one direction. You need an appropriate mix of out-of-home, print, digital, video and in-clinic mediums. Community and multicultural papers and websites are also great places to meet your audience. But don’t just translate copy, make sure you develop new – culturally appropriate – creative and taglines for commonly spoken languages across Canada like Hindi, Italian, Mandarin, Punjabi or Spanish.
  • Earned media – When there’s compelling creative, business and marketing reporters at will often take interest. Marketing trades, dailies and online news sites can profile the strategy and creative insights that drive DTC development. In fact, the restrictions on advertising often make stories about campaigns that much more compelling. Through compliant editorial engagement, you can support disease understanding with consumer health reporters who are interested in addressing complex conditions impacting Canadians.  
  • Evaluate and course-correct as required – As with other campaigns, you must have a clear measurement plan to assess the success of your DTC initiatives. Stay flexible to allow for tweaking of the media/digital media buy to drive key performance indicators.

Sometimes being in a tight situation prompts innovative thinking. In fact, it seems like it happens all the time. Some of the best campaigns I’ve worked on were pharma – not in spite of regulations, but because of them. Necessity is the mother of invention, and being hemmed in can bring out the best in creative and strategy.

In the end, I wisely decided to not explain all of this to the parents at the hockey game. Instead, I was delighted to see my son’s team dig deep when their backs were against the wall and score a game-tying goal. It was fitting.

About the author

Rob McEwan
Executive Vice President, Health & Wellness, at Argyle PR – a Believeco Partners Company.

Rob is one of Canada’s top health communicators, actively consulting a dozen pharmaceutical companies, and engages with patient advocates, health professionals, journalists, clinicians, researchers and influencers on a daily basis. He lives in Toronto and when not working can be found at Leaside Arena.