PharmaToons: The FDA Ponders Animation

Posted by: in Advertising, Communication, Content, Culture, Customer Experience, Global Healthcare, Healthcare Insights, Integrated Communications, Integrated Marketing, Marketing Insights, Media & Engagement, Medical Communications, Storytizing, twist, W2O Group on July 2, 2016

At W2O, we pay a lot of attention to the ads we see, and this is particularly true in the pharmaceutical space. We watch the Super Bowl like everybody else, sure, but between quarters, we find our attention drawn to fungus-fighting toes, or to the amiable, liberated colon known as “Gut Guy.”

GutGuyHe is memorable, no doubt. Following his debut, some found Gut Guy to be vaguely off-putting. Others eagerly inquired as to when the plushy would be available. Vive la difference.

Whatever your thoughts, current discussions of direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharma advertising have brought with them a fascinating niche of study. The FDA now plans to examine the use of animation in DTC ads. This study, entitled “Animation in Direct-to-Consumer Advertising,” will explore how animation affects viewer comprehension and recall.1

Driving this study is the fact that all DTC ads must contain a “fair balance” of information. These voice-over details of important safety information (on television, they must be spoken) is something we have all come to recognize. The question is whether or not the use of animated visual elements can distract the viewer, to the extent that their understanding and retention of important risks may be impaired.

As humans, we have limits on the cognitive resources we can allocate to processing, understanding, and remembering information.2 Some studies show that the complexity of animation is a big drain on our mental reserves, and that only a fraction of any information presented leaves an impression.3 Because we are talking science, however, we of course find conflicting data that describes how animation actually aids with our comprehension of complex information.2

Either way, it is no secret that a well-formed advertising persona can take on a life of its own in numerous promotional formats, which helps strengthen the brand. If the character is particularly appealing, it can even inspire brand loyalty.

But it is not always harmless fun.

Camel&ButterflyNo doubt, a personality like Joe Camel still lingers in the FDA memory trust. Joe is a sketchy character, even by dromedarian standards, and associated risks were never his strong suit. But for brand recognition? He’s your guy.

But what of something far more innocuous, like the comforting butterfly used for a well-known sleep aid? Does even this type of brand iconography affect retention of the most important elements of the safety message? It seems hardly fair to compare the two icons, but the fact is, there is precious little data to guide us.

Inspired storytelling can help communicate sophisticated healthcare messages in a way that makes them approachable. For example, some patients with irritable bowel syndrome may feel embarrassed by their symptoms and reluctant to discuss them. But the introduction of a character like Gut Guy may be just the ticket to unlock a lighthearted conversation with their healthcare provider. And that feels like appropriate use.

Whether personified characters and other animation techniques lead to reduced comprehension of risk and benefit information is an important and unanswered question. As a side note, it is also worthy to note that poorly designed characters have resulted in past compliance violations.

Used with caution, however, and for the right reasons, there seems to be a place for animation. It will be most enlightening to see what these data ultimately have to say. We’ll be watching.


  2. Clayton RB, et al. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. 2015;59:57-75.
  3. Fox JR, et al. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. 2004;48:646-74.

By: Robert Newcomer

Medical Director, W2O Group

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