Sometimes pharma marketing can seem like marketing on hard mode—especially when delicate conditions are involved. Advertising new and innovative drugs, educating patients, and navigating regulatory minefields are their own brand of challenging without having to worry about potentially offending, embarrassing, or alienating patients.

Luckily, the industry has been marketing products that treat sensitive, embarrassing, or difficult-to-talk-about conditions to patients and providers for a while now, and there are a few common approaches that seem to work—at least on a case-by-case basis. Read on as we discuss approaches we’ve seen in the marketplace – from most common to least common – along with their pros and cons:

  1. Empower the Patient

    When a condition is embarrassing or impacts self-confidence, the empowerment route is a common approach. For this strategy, marketers typically incorporate creative and verbiage that invoke triumph over the condition without extensively depicting the condition itself. The idea is to strike an emotional chord with patients and highlight the efficacy of the product at the same time.

    Pros: Doodle figure with cape

    – Sidesteps personal insecurity by focusing on results, rather than the initial condition

    – Creates an emotional appeal that can resonate with patients


    – Common in the marketplace

    – Emotional appeal doesn’t resonate with all viewers, especially those who prioritize data (such as providers)

    Otezla’s psoriasis spot focuses on the empowering feeling that comes with managing psoriasis symptoms successfully. The “little things” are drawn from common human experience and are presumably chosen to connect with the maximum possible number of patients.

    For patients who are struggling with their psoriasis symptoms, we can imagine the appeal of the positive tone of this spot.

  2. Don’t Talk About It

    Not talking about or depicting the actual condition but instead presenting scenes adjacent to the condition is another approach. When messaging largely glosses over the condition and focuses on lifestyle benefits instead, you know that this is the route the product has chosen.

    Old timey shushing nurseWhen awareness isn’t a hurdle or you’re dealing with a crowded marketplace, this strategy can be deceptively strong.


    – Less likely to offend or alienate embarrassed patients

    – Versatile – able to suit a wide range of creative approaches


    – Common in the marketplace

    – Can be vague – not suitable for diseases where awareness is a hurdle

    We did a campaign for Suprax, a once-daily antibiotic for conditions including UTI, that targeted women and providers. Instead of depicting a urinary tract infection (because really, how do you do that well?) or focusing on symptoms, we introduced aspirational lifestyle imagery and a symbolic clock to represent the simplicity of a medicine taken once per day, rather than twice or three times per day. Because awareness isn’t a hurdle with UTIs – but medication compliance is – this approach was especially effective for both provider and patient audiences.

  3. Blind Them with Science

    We’d like to see more of this in the marketplace, because we believe consumers are intelligent enough to engage with science (if presented in straightforward language).

    Sidestepping the anxiety over how to present a delicate or difficult condition entirely, blinding them with science means marketing based on the strength of the drug in addressing the condition via data and hard facts. Time to dust off those pivotal studies!


    – Strongly reinforces the product’s value proposition

    – Educates the patient and can even raise awareness without an embarrassment factor

    Organic chemistry line angle representationsCons:  

    – May box out consumers who aren’t educated or comfortable with scientific principles

    – May not be as memorable as other approaches, depending on the creative

    The patient website for Intrarosa, an intravaginal treatment for painful sex in postmenopausal women, is a great example of science-driven site architecture and messaging. We give them kudos for including indication and clinical study information in a digestible way from the very first page instead of focusing too heavily on lifestyle, metaphors, or testimonial messaging—a common pitfall in this space that can come across as condescending. Being scientific in a patient-friendly way is hard, but it’s a great way to educate.

  4. Lean In

    Never underestimate the power of leaning in and acknowledging the potential embarrassment factor of a delicate condition. This can work really well—or not.

    When it’s done right, leaning in is an especially effective way to engage with patients. Humor makes ads memorable and entertaining while simultaneously encouraging the viewer not to take themselves too seriously.


    – Humor and a little shock value make ads far more memorable

    – Is effective for raising awareness, especially if ads go viral


    – Can embarrass or alienate sensitive audiences

    – May overemphasize the condition at the expense of stating the value proposition

    Roman is an online prescribing service primarily focused on erectile dysfunction (ED), hair loss, and other sensitive conditions affecting men. An early spot for the service capitalized on the cliches found in other infamous ED drug ads with great success.

    It’s obvious that ED is an emotionally charged subject, but the extreme “don’t talk about it” tendencies of ED product marketing is ripe for parody.

The Moral of the Story

There’s more than one way to market a product well when delicate topics are involved, and each have their own advantages and potential pitfalls. Ultimately, it’s all about execution and the mindset of your product’s unique audience.

At bfw, we’ve been around the block with everything from vaginal infections to gastrointestinal parasites, so you can trust us to find a way forward that works with your patient and provider audiences. We’d love to hear from you.