The Curse of Know-Nothing Marketers
What triggered this column was a full-page advertisement in The New York Times for Pradaxa, a drug designed to treat a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which has just been cleared for launch into the marketplace.
The stakes are huge. One pharmaceutical analyst predicted that by 2018, Pradaxa will generate blockbuster revenues of $1.38 billion.
The headline of the ad and deck are shown in the IN THE NEWS box at right.
It is immediately obvious that Pradaxa hired rank amateurs to create its print campaign.
Clearly, neither advertiser nor agency nor creative people had a clue what they were doing. The ad breaks the most basic rule of advertising, which means that it was flat out missed by many of the very patients it was aiming to reach.
Direct Marketing Today: An Industry Relying on On-the-Job Guessing
At a dinner with Russell Perkins—founder of InfoCommerce and one of the savviest people I know in the communications business—we got talking about the twenty-somethings who were hired during the dot-com expansion years without ever having learned the rules of marketing, copy or design.
During that period, a vast army of new hires never had proper mentoring—either because the potential mentors were absorbed in other things or didn’t know the rules either.
As an example, Perkins cited a recent, heavily-attended marketing conference where the speaker described a remarkable discovery he had made.
He got the idea of testing two offers—one against the other—to see which was the better offer.
Splitting his test list into two equal sections, he called one half the "A group" and the other half the "B group," he told the assembled attendees.
"Then I made one offer to the A group and the other offer to the B group. One was a winner, so we went with that." He added, "I called my new discovery the A-B Split Test."
Russell looked around and saw everybody busily scribbling down these hard diamonds of wisdom coming from the dais. A-B Split Test! Wow! That's brilliant! was the reaction throughout the room.
The A/B split has been around for 100 years. It is the very first thing a direct marketer should learn—either in school or on the job.
"The Holy Grail of direct marketing," wrote entrepreneur-consultant Don Nicholas, "is the single variable test."
Ask a room full of marketing conference attendees today to define the single variable test (as opposed to the multi-variable test), and my bet is maybe 20 percent could make an intelligent stab at the answer.
"What is amazing," Perkins said, "is that these people are unapologetic about what they don’t know."
These are the kind of ignoramuses working in marketing, especially for big pharma and Wall Street.
About Pradaxa and AFib
More than 2 million people suffer from atrial fibrillation, a condition where the upper heart chambers are not coordinated and beat in an irregular and fast rhythm. If left untreated, AFib can be lethal. Among the various treatments: pacemaker, electric shock and surgery.
The standard medication for atrial fibrillation is warfarin (Coumadin), a blood thinner designed to prevent clots. Forbes blogger Matthew Herper describes warfarin as “a 60-year-old drug with the same active ingredient as rat poison.” A warfarin side effect is high susceptibility to stroke.
The results of a recent clinical trial showed Pradaxa to be far safer than warfarin. The manufacturer of Pradaxa—Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals—wants to start recouping the tens of millions of dollars spent on research and development. It is imperative to get the word out fast to AFib patients, scare hell out of them about the dangers of warfarin and promise the salvation of Pradaxa. It is hoped that the P.R. and ad blitz (including a TV campaign that kicked off during the Kentucky Derby broadcast and running on Network news programs) would generate so much buzz that the phones of cardiologists everywhere would start ringing off their hooks and put warfarin out of business.
The print medium of choice was a series of full-page ads in weekday editions of The New York Times and very likely elsewhere.
Four Irrevocable Rules of Space Advertising
"The headline selects the reader." —Axel Andersson, direct marketing guru, founder of the Axel Andersson Akademie, Hamburg
"The headline is the 'ticket on the meat.' Use it to flag down readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising. If you are selling a remedy for bladder weakness, display the words BLADDER WEAKNESS in your headline; they catch the eye of everyone who suffers from this inconvenience. If you want mothers to read your advertisement, display MOTHERS in your headline. And so on." —David Ogilvy
"On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your advertising dollar." —David Ogilvy
"Avoid blind headlines—the kind which mean nothing unless you read the body copy underneath them; most people don’t." —David Ogilvy
In the first illustration in the mediaplayer to the right there are two versions of the top third of the full-page of The New York Times ad for Pradaxa. The left-hand ad is what actually ran in four weekday editions of the Times. The headline breaks every one of the above rules:
"FINALLY after 50 years our patients have a choice."
This blind headline could be for any medication or procedure from aspirin to arthroscopic surgery.
You have to continue reading to see what the ad is about. The easily overlooked little deck under this big headline talks about who should be reading the ad:
If you have an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation
not caused by a heart valve problem
ask your doctor about PRADAXA.
Whereupon the second paragraph pounds home the advantage of Pradaxa over warfarin:
*In a clinical trial, PRADAXA 150 mg
reduced stroke risk 35% more than warfarin.
Risk reduction was greatest when compared to
patients on warfarin whose blood test showed
lower levels of control.
A patient taking medication for AFib—with a 35 percent higher risk of stroke—would be a fool not to contact the cardiologist about Pradaxa! But how many AFib patients would read the tiny body copy following the big blind headline? As Ogilvy wrote, "Most people don’t."
The right-hand ad in illustration No. 1 is a simple edit: I turned the deck into the headline, so that all AFib patients would glom on to the great news about Pradaxa.
I saw the ad in the Times once a week for four weeks. If it ran nationally the cost was $150,000 each or $600,000 total. The 15 percent commission for the incompetent agency would be a tasty $90,000.
Astonishingly, the Pradaxa Website Is Textbook Correct!
Take a look at the second illustration in the mediaplayer—the Pradaxa website. No blind headline here that some nitwit copywriter struggled over and got the imprimatur of his dodo of an account supervisor. The home page at www.pradaxa.com follows the rules perfectly. The headline:
If you have an irregular heartbeat
called atrial fibrillation, or AFib, not caused by a heart valve problem:
Finally, there is a choice to help reduce
your risk of stroke. PRADAXA.
How the Pradaxa print people could be such dopes, while those who created the website are so spot-on is a mystery.
A Bevy of Bad Ads in TIME
Pradaxa is not the only pharmaceutical company that shells out big bucks for mediocre advertising services. The third illustration in the mediaplayer depicts full-page ads from TIME, May 30, 2011. Both Lipitor and Zetia have headlines that are unreadable and useless. If they had run nationally in TIME, the cost of each would be $301,900 (with each agency collecting $45,285 as a commission for placing the ad).
The fourth illustration in the mediaplayer is from that same issue of TIME—a full-page ad for E*Trade with a spectacular offer to traders: 60 days of free trades (normally $9.99 each) plus up to $500 cash. For an active stock, bond or ETF trader, this is a huge inducement to open an E*Trade account, even if the account is canceled on the 59th day.
The actual ad is shown on the left-hand side of the illustration with this silly, meaningless blind headline:
In small type under this headline is the deck—the 60-day offer for free trading plus up to $500—that could easily be overlooked.
In addition, the response information (phone and email address) is buried in white mousetype on a black background at the very bottom left of the ad.
On the right-hand side of the fourth illustration is a minimal redesign of this ad—reversing the headline and the deck and prominently featuring the reply information.
With the revised version a serious trader can immediately see the offer, instantly decide if it’s worth pursuing and contact E*Trade in seconds.
Ads With No Headlines
In that issue of TIME are two additional ads that break the rules—Goldman Sachs and United Healthcare—see the fifth illustration in the mediaplayer. Neither has a headline.
As longtime readers know, I describe this kind of nonsense as peeing in blue serge. It makes you feel warm all over and nobody notices.