An estimated average of 111.9 million Americans tuned in to the Super Bowl smackdown between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers this past Sunday, which made it the 3rd-largest audience in the event's history. And they all got several doses of pharma television marketing from companies like AstraZeneca and Valeant.
Two ads that got widespread attention during the game were AstraZeneca's (AZ) Movantik (naloxegol) ad for opioid-induced constipation (OIC) and Valeant's Xifaxan (rifaxamin) ad for irritable bowel syndrome with predominant diarrhea (IBD-D). (There were also ads for Valeant's dermatology med Jublia).
While the ads were generally viewed favorably from a creative perspective, there was also disapproval in some quarters given the current pricing debate surrounding the drug industry. A 30-second spot cost $5 million.
Another source of controversy surrounded what some perceived as AZ's implicit endorsement of opioid use, especially given the huge problem with prescription opioid addiction—a phenomenon that led to 28,647 related deaths in 2014.
Like most of the advertising that shows up during the Super Bowl, the ads from AstraZeneca and Valeant represented top-notch creative messaging in line with approved indications for their respective products. Notwithstanding the proliferation of inevitable bathroom humor on social media, these ads served their purpose: Reaching a massive audience, many of whom could potentially benefit from the medications.
However, in each case, there was criticism hurled at the respective companies via social media and follow-up media analysis. Some of this is justified. But both pharma companies followed all the rules and are likely to see an uptick in sales as a result of their efforts.
In the case of Movantik, the black-and-white montage of an everyman who takes opioids for chronic pain and suffers from constipation as a result underscores a lighthearted sense of defeat and envy that unfolds as he watches other people emerge from bathrooms looking happy.
With respect to Xifaxan, the anthropomorphic intestine known as "Gut Guy" exemplifies someone (or thing, in this case) who faces the plight of IBS-D and all of the urgency and inconvenience that comes with it. You can watch the ad here.
Beyond the educational value of the ads, they play a role not only in raising awareness, but also in helping destigmatize conditions related to the gut.
"We were pleased to see the Xifaxan and Movantik ads," said Michael Smith, vice president of G-PACT, a non-profit organization focused on advocacy for patients who suffer from digestive tract paralysis-related conditions, such as gastroparesis, chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction, and colonic inertia.
According to Smith, many of the 11,000 individuals in G-PACT rely on Xifaxan to deal with one of the major consequences of chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction—small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, a condition that can significantly contribute to long-term morbidity for these patients leading to worse outcomes, and sometimes death.
Smith also applauds the pharma ads as part of a process of destigmatizing gut-related conditions and bringing them into the larger conversation about wellness and overcoming—or at least managing—digestive tract-related conditions.
"The gut has always gotten short shrift," he said. "I think that there continues to be a stigma, but we are talking about real conditions. In our case, conditions that can lead to complete failure of an entire organ system."
"We were not pleased with some of the negative social media reactions and poop jokes. If we were talking about congestive heart failure or diabetes, the reaction would have been completely different. It's not acceptable to make fun of those conditions."