Pfizer is about to launch advertising for a new product in the United States: the Covid-19 vaccine.

It may sound a little strange. After all, it’s hard to think of a product that has received more promotion than the Covid-19 vaccine. Governments, activists, health professionals, celebrities and ordinary citizens are all unpaid advocates, urging anyone who is unvaccinated to get vaccinated, often a second, and soon a third.

The United States is, along with New Zealand, one of only two countries to allow direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs. So when Pfizer’s vaccine, which now goes by the brand name Comirnaty, received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on August 23, the company was also cleared to market it and was released. expanded its sales force to do so.

Pharmaceutical companies spend exorbitant amounts on marketing, their biggest expense, ahead of research and development. In 2019, Pfizer spent around $ 2.4 billion on advertising, and its resources to promote the Covid-19 vaccine could be even greater, given that the company is already expected to make $ 15 billion from it, before any commercialization..

The company hired the Ogilvy advertising agency to work on a campaign. “We plan to take a thoughtful approach to marketing and advertising Comirnaty to the public during this time, with the goal of increasing confidence in the vaccination,” Pfizer spokesperson Eamon Nolan told Quartz in an email. Pfizer and Ogilvy both declined to share more details about the campaign.

Whatever thoughtful approach the company plans to take for its marketing, the goals are likely to be to expand the Covid-19 vaccine market and convince as many people as possible to get hold of the Pfizer vaccine, rather than any of the others available.

This will become all the more important as Americans over 65 and at high risk of contracting Covid-19 will soon begin receiving booster shots, following a recommendation from a panel of FDA advisers. Other groups will not need the booster yet, but they will likely need it someday. Preliminary research shows that there are no downsides, and potentially even benefits, to mixing vaccines with a booster, so Pfizer could compete for part of the market to boost other vaccines. Additionally, if the Covid-19 vaccine becomes an annual fixture, like an influenza vaccine, Pfizer envisions a potential market of around 300 million doses per year in the United States alone.

Types of advertising

It’s hard to think of precedents when the advertising of a drug has coincided with a major public campaign to promote it, let alone on this scale. Even when AIDS drug cocktails were introduced, the publicity was not for a particular drug, but more widely for the availability of treatment.

But the large promotional device associated with the vaccine, which includes cash prizes for those who get the vaccine, does not necessarily make the job of advertising Comirnaty easier. In fact, it creates rather choppy waters for a marketing team, says Pradeep Chintagunta, a professor at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago who specializes in pharmaceutical marketing.

Pfizer offers two main types of direct-to-consumer advertising. The first is known as a help-seeking ad, and it’s a type of promotion that doesn’t recommend a particular drug. This type of advertising aims to publicize a disease or, in this case, the availability of a vaccine and its value. It focuses on expanding the market, advising consumers that they should talk to their doctors, but it cannot specifically mention Comirnaty, or any product, although it may carry the Pfizer logo.

This type of advertising, says Chintagunta, could even be done in collaboration with other drug manufacturers and would have the main objective of expanding the potential market. This would also have another advantage, which could prove particularly useful for the promotion of vaccines: it does not need to list the side effects of the drug.

This is not true for the second type of advertisement Pfizer might choose to do, a product claim advertisement. This type of advertisement promotes the prescription drug with its brand name, but must list side effects and risks as clearly as its benefits. A product claim ad can also be comparative, selling a product by highlighting how it is superior to a competitor.

For Comirnaty, the latter type of advertising could be a minefield.

On the one hand, being able to promote the specific product would be valuable for Pfizer, especially in the longer term. One of the concerns is that with so many companies working on vaccines, there will be many options available and an oversupply of vaccines, says Chintagunta. “Competition is going to play a big role, and how a company is able to communicate the relative benefits of its vaccine could then become really crucial,” he says.

But that carries the danger of dissuading potential patients from getting the vaccine, as reading or hearing the entire list of side effects could alarm someone on the fence, even if the side effects are pale compared to the risks associated with Covid-19. . Comparative advertising would push this risk even further; Highlighting the shortcomings of a competing product could have the consequence of reducing confidence in any vaccine, regardless of the manufacturer.

Help-seeking advertising would not run this risk, but could have limited impact, at least in the short term. It’s hard to imagine someone in the United States who is not at least aware of Covid-19 and the possibility of getting vaccinated.

Who would benefit from Comirnaty’s advertising?

There is another element to consider, says Chintagunta. Americans, who traditionally have low esteem for drug companies, have come to associate drug marketing with greed, and vaccine skeptics might be even further removed by viewing the vaccine as a commercial product. “If this product is seen as something we should be getting for free […] the fact that it was advertised and people may have to pay for it could reflect badly on the company, ”he says.

All of this calls for caution when it comes to advertising Comirnaty. But many people working in pharmaceutical marketing believe the company will spare no effort to promote the drug to the greatest extent possible.

Markus Saba, professor of healthcare marketing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he expects the campaign for Cominarty to be on a scale proportional to the size of the health problem an times a century, comparing it to the importance of campaigns for Viagra. “You turn on the TV and you can’t watch a show without 10 different commercials,” he told the Financial Times.

But while direct-to-consumer advertising is the most visible part of the marketing effort, an area of ​​promotion just as important, if not more, and with less risk, reaches hospitals, doctors and pharmacies. Unlike the first vaccination campaign, the boosters will likely be given the same way as the flu shots, via the doctor or the pharmacy. It will therefore be essential for Pfizer to convince those prescribing or administering the vaccine to recommend Pfizer over Moderna, or other options. “If it is by default the traditional ‘go to your doctor and get vaccinated’, then [the game] will not be broadcast on the air or in the pages of a magazine, but in the doctor’s office, ”explains Chintagunta.

There is, however, one important way in which Pfizer’s direct-to-consumer advertising could be useful, not just for the business, but for the overall vaccination campaign. If her resources were turned to fine-grained, targeted advertising, she might be able to move the needle of vaccine skepticism into groups that have not responded to government campaigns and other forms. vaccine promotion, such as young adults or immigrant communities. “This is where they can flex their marketing muscle, I think the benefit of targeted advertising can really show up in this particular case,” says Chintagunta.

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