Medical Advertising: The Good, the Bad, and the Ineffective

Published: 06th May 2007
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Creating a strong business-to-business type of advertisement for a medical product or service is a little like trying to write and design with handcuffs. The medical world is highly regulated, and ads that fail to pass muster simply cannot run. The result is an environment that frustrates sound promotional work. That is sometimes even not noticed because the people who review and approve medical advertisements in-house rarely know much about advertising anyway.

Advertising is tricky business, particularly in the medical world. One myth that gets a lot of would-be medical advertisers in trouble is the notion that an ad is an ad is an ad. In other words, you advertise running shoes the same way you sell beta blockers. These ads are often visually quite striking and tend to rely on an arresting image and a tiny amount of clever verbiage.

If you're selling perfume or shampoo or even the services of a real estate agency, you could probably get away with an eye-catcher and a few words because people generally know how those things work. But when you advertise medical products and services, you are selling something complicated to people who are experts.

An expert is generally a person who wants to know more about the subject. Ask a heart failure doctor about heart failure, and, man, he'll tell you about heart failure. He is eager to learn more about heart failure. He likes to read about heart failure. Showing him your new device for heart failure and then be stingy with the copy leaves him with the impression that your product must not be very good or else you would have said more about it. After all, if you had dazzling new features or some cool automatic algorithm or other special advantages, you surely would mention them in an ad.

A long time ago, I was studying ads for a competitive intelligence I was doing. There was a lot of buzz about a certain new product because it possessed what the industry regarded as a breakthrough new feature, yet ads did not mention it. It was not that the ads avoided it. They just had so few words there was no room to discuss anything as verbose as this particular new feature. It was quite baffling and some of my peers concluded perhaps this new product did not have that new feature after all. It turned out it did, the ads just committed a sin of omission. But customers truly interested in your products will be reading your ads and thinking that features you do not mention are not part of the new product.

Experts also appreciate features rather than benefits. That goes against the grain of some people who have read one or two books on advertising, since most advice tells you to sell benefits rather than features. That works in the consumer world or when you are advertising something to somebody who does not understand how the product works. But for experts, mention the feature. Nowadays, a guy buying a car knows the pros and cons of automatic transmission; you don't need to sell him the benefit, you just mention the feature. With docs, you tell them your product's ingredients or algorithms or other features, and they can figure out whether it matters to them.

Long copy sells more than short copy. Scientic studies of advertisements have shown this to be true, in fact. Most designers will tell you that an ad is all about pictures and that is somewhat true if you're going for an awards (awards tend to go to visually attractive ads). But if you want to see how many ads convert people to an action, and you're looking at copy.

You can even prove this to yourself. Imagine you had to sell something. You could only use one thing: all pictures or all words. Which would you pick? You'd have to pick words. You can't sell with just pictures (how would the person order or buy the product if it did not have a name or a company associated with it?). But you can sell with just words.

I'm not minimizing the value of a great image. But never let the designer-mafia push you away from the words of the ads. It is copy that does the selling and you need to write about your product as clearly and as passionately as you can in a way that grips and holds the reader's attention. Ideally, your product solves a major headache for the potential buyer. It offers some breakthrough and will save time, aggravation, or otherwise make things better and easier. Your ad should be pitched that way and then provide all of the content.

Don't minimize content. Throw in a graph, if you need one, or a chart.

It is vital to spend a lot of time thinking about everything your potential customer might have against your product and then to think about how to address them. Don't run away from this; counter it. There are lots of ways to do this. You can name them and swat them down ("Another birth control drug? Yes, but this one is different ? it's for men.") Or you can counter them ("Cholesterol drugs worked great but side effects made them dangerous for a small number of patients. Our new drug is as effective as the market leader but far fewer patients experience any side effects with it and of those that did have side effects, 99% were mild enough to allow the patients to keep taking the drug.") Another way is to just steamroll right over them. ("All pacemakers claim to provide comprehensive diagnostic data, but the real test of diagnostics is this: do they give you information you need to care for your patients? Our device diagnostics were designed to maximize relevant information and minimize the fluff. We're also the only company that offers you a diagnostics set-up page so that if our diagnostics are not exactly what you need, you can customize reports for your clinic. You can't get any better than made-to-order device diagnostics.")

Your starting to notice something. You can't always do these things well in a half-dozen words. It takes some wordcount to really build a good case in an ad and that's what you want to have.

Some advertisers fear that nobody will read their ad if it's very long. In truth, there are two main groups of people who will see your advertisement: those that care about what you're selling and those that don't. Those that don't care won't read the ad, even if it was very short. Those that do care will start to read it and, providing it is relevant to them, will continue. The fact is, if you can get a person to read 5 words, you can usually get him to read 500 more, providing you're talking about something he's interested in.

In a way, medical advertisers are fortunate because doctors, by nature, are avid readers. They consume volumes of printed materials every week, so reading 500 words in an ad is nothing to them.

If the doctor or other customer is truly interested in your product, he or she will want to know more, want details on your product's features, want to hear how you meet their objections, and want to see any other data, case studies, or other information you can report. Think about the last time you bought a car. If you were very close to making a decision about a particular car, you probably read a lot about it. You wanted to know its features. You wanted to hear about the experiences of others with this car. You wanted to check out all the specifications.

It's the same way with advertising to experts. Give them information.


Jo Ann LeQuang has strong opinions about medical marketing communications and owns LeQ Medical Marketing Communications. Based in Texas, this agency offers a wide range of marketing communications services exclusively to medical companies, device manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and even physicians. LeQ Medical is online at .

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