January 30, 2012

Marketing Health

imageBy Sally Raskoff

Have you seen the ads for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Gardasil? It is designed to prevent genital warts and cervical cancer caused by some types of HPV and is recommended for both females and males ages nine through twenty-six.

clip_image002I’ve been fascinated by the marketing and public discourse about this product since it first came out. When it was first developed, marketing it to parents as an anti-sexually transmitted disease (STD) vaccine was a tough sell. Parents don’t often want to think of the future sexual lives of their daughters. The ad campaign quickly became an anti-cancer message rather than one related to the future sexual activity of the child. Now we seem to be back to focusing on the sexually transmitted disease rather than just the cancer issue.

The current campaign tells us, “Your son or daughter could be one less person affected by HPV disease.”

The guidelines for the vaccine have changed over time. In 2006, when the drug was approved, it was suggested only for females. But in 2009, the drug was approved for the prevention of genital warts (caused by specific varieties of HPV) in males as well as females.

While the drug has been approved for use for those between nine and twenty-six, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifies that eleven- to twelve-year-old girls should be the primary target for the vaccine. Various government leaders have proposed making it a mandatory vaccine, but those policies are relatively new and controversial ideas.

Why do you think the manufacturer moved the marketing focus from an STD to cancer and then back to an STD? Why not just present it as an STD vaccine, which is what it has always been?

Marketing Gardasil as an STD vaccine was controversial because girls, especially young girls, were the first targeted demographic. Parents were uncomfortable thinking about their little girls’ future sexual activities and choices. Moving the focus from STDs to cancer was a brilliant marketing strategy. What parent would not want to prevent cancer in his or her child?

However, once the product was approved for boys – and for genital warts, which isn’t the same as cancer – the anti-cancer angle wouldn’t work anymore. So, the manufacturers moved back to an STD model.

Their campaign seems to be working well, since governments are starting to discuss adding this vaccine to the list of those required for children. Why didn’t it get to that stage when it was only marketed to girls? Is it easier for parents to accept the future sexuality of their boys than for their girls? Or was it just that the product was already known by the time it became tied back to the STD?

One of the assignments in my sociology classes is to investigate the “whole truth” about popular medications like birth control pills and those targeting erectile dysfunction. Part of the assignment is to look at the product website and compare that information to that found for the same product at the Food and Drug administration’s website at FDA.gov and at drugs.com. It is quite fascinating to see how drugs are marketed and what other information exists. Hopefully, all sites include the same information. Typically, however, the marketing websites do not make some information easily accessible, particularly that related to side effects.

One can access vast amounts of information on these sites such as the history of drug approvals, labeling, and other changes.

Using your sociological knowledge to make sense of the world is important. This can be applied to many areas, including health and advertising. How else can your sociological imagination help you think critically about marketing health?


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As a healthcare professional I found your blog very intriguing. I worked for some time in a clinic that specialized in infectious diseases, particularly sexually transmitted diseases. On several occasions when parents would bring their young teenagers into the clinic it was customary for us to offer the HPV vaccine Gardasil to anyone between the ages of 12-14 years old.

There was definitely a difference in receptiveness from the parents depending on the gender of the teenager and the parent. Male children were more likely to leave the clinic with the vaccine than female teenagers. Mothers were more likely to approve the vaccine for both sons and daughters, whereas fathers generally would only approve the vaccine if the teenager was a male.

There seemed to be a strong correlation, although it is difficult to properly and scientifically assess. The multitude of factors contributing to whether or not the teenager received the vaccine is too infinite to properly make any conclusions based on my limited information. With some parents it took a lot of time to educate them on the benefits of the vaccine and referring to it as an "anti-cancer" vaccine was always the winning argument.

Hi there Sally,
Thank you for your informative post. I must say I totally agree with your comments with regards to parenting responsibilities. I was a little suprised that male teens were more likely to not only have the drug but it also was dad's choice to get involved in the process. Generally, I feel Dad's too often take a back seat in these matters.
Anyway thanks again
regards Jeff

The post that i read was called "Marketing Health" and i think it is a good idea to have this because some people in the world do have problems and need help. So theres people that care in the world and try to come up with something to cure them, help them, or help them improve in hatever condition they have.

Marketing is about making money. That's the bottom line. And protecting the brand.

This post has provide me a good marketing health idea, in near future I am will try to imply this for my new health product. after all thanks for the good idea.

The ad campaign quickly became an anti-cancer message rather than one related to the future sexual activity of the child.

Why didn’t it get to that stage when it was only marketed to girls? Is it easier for parents to accept the future sexuality of their boys than for their girls?

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