Should health and pharma ads be funny?

In a recent article, creative strategist Emily Gorey points out a notable shift in marketing - at least when it comes to ads targeted to younger consumers: a “demand” for absurdity.


On TikTok, Gorey observes, successful ad campaigns often call on absurd premises to get noticed. One example is language learning site Duolingo, whose posts frequently play on the idea that its owl mascot will do terrible things to learners who don’t keep up with their lessons.


The concept might seem inappropriate, unprofessional, or even shocking to some, but Gen Z consumers love it, and Duolingo is far from the only company going this route. Gorey writes that TikTok, whose user base is 60% Gen Z-ers, abounds with strange ads. The reason why these ads get such a positive response, though, may not be what you were expecting.


Gen Z consumers value authenticity, so seeing an organization’s social media account post something sincere and earnest that’s followed by “ #Ad” seems like a slap in the face. On the other hand, humor and absurdity make it seem like companies are letting Gen Zers in on the joke, which in a sense makes the interaction and communication more sincere.


But what about areas where humor isn’t so obvious? Healthcare and pharma marketing goes hand in hand with serious issues. So could those ads be funny, too?


Stat News’s delightful feature about the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s social media accounts seems like the perfect example of how to use humor when addressing serious, even life-threatening, issues. Joseph Galbo, the agency’s social media specialist, creates bizarre images and characters - think a giant cooked turkey looming over Boston, or a dog who’s a country star - to help remind younger consumers to stay safe.


Galbo’s inspiration came from the fact that the agency has to post somewhat repetitive information (a current topic is space heater safety, for instance), but needs to get people’s attention (you know, to potentially save lives and all).


His weird tweets and Instagram posts have certainly succeeded! The agency has over 140,000 followers on Twitter. Posts are regularly retweeted, and also garner hundreds of likes on Instagram.


In a similar vein, Pfizer’s “Slow turkey” ad campaign for Chantix, a drug to help people stop smoking, won an award at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in 2021. Although not laugh-out-loud funny, the ads use a memorable concept and silly mascot to convey their message.


But using comedy and absurdity in pharma ads requires a sense of balance. At the start of the the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, Galbo knew the tone needed to shift a little. He sought a way to share important information but also reassure those who came upon his posts, and so, he created a new character: Quinn the Quarantine Fox, a masked fox who shares supportive messages.


When talking about the inspiration behind Quinn and the responses he’s elicited, Galbo gets emotional. It’s clear that despite the weird humor of his usual posts, he genuinely wants to comfort people as we go through this pandemic.


That empathy is what’s needed when it comes to finding the right mix of humor and compassion in medical and pharma advertising.


If a brand wants to launch a funny health or pharma ad, here are a few other things to keep in mind:


● Some subjects won't be a laughing matter.


Laughter is the best medicine, and it is possible to laugh about just about anything, but as healthcare marketing firm Wax points out, mainstream consumers aren’t likely to want to chuckle about issues like death and violence.


● Some conditions can be funny


On the other hand, creative marketing expert Ashley Schofield spotlights several humorous pharma ads that focus on the frustrations of particular health conditions. These frustrations are relatable for patients, and the conditions are, crucially, manageable or curable.


● Imagery can set the tone


Making jokes may not be easy, but lightening the tone could be a simple stylistic change away. Schofield also spotlights a few ads that insert whimsy into unexpected situations. For instance, a claymation-style image shows some over-the-top (yet possible) reasons for accidents that could lead patients to the emergency room.


● You must know your audience.


Learn what your target audience expects from a healthcare/pharma ad. If humor or whimsy are okay, understand what kinds of jokes these consumers best respond to, and what references they will and won’t get. A good place to start is looking at what competitors are doing with their social media accounts - not to mention checking out social media accounts that are popular with your target audience in general.


● Keep it up.


If you want your ads to be funny or strange, stick with it. Ad campaigns and branding are a commitment. Remember Galbo’s reaction to the serious physical as well as mental issues of the pandemic; instead of totally changing the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s absurd social media style, he created a new character in the same vein who could convey the sincere feelings of support, encouragement, and wanting to help that he and his organization wanted to communicate.


Absurd or funny advertising is a great way for brands to stand out, increase awareness, and get the attention of younger audiences. It’s even possible for healthcare and pharma companies. Do it right, and you may fly high with legends like the Duolingo owl or Quinn the Quarantine Fox (in a spacesuit, riding on a winged horse).



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Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg


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