Headache relief in sight

'The time has come and gone for the guys in white lab coats.'
So says Rick Smith, SVP and managing director at Toronto-based Saatchi & Saatchi, to sum up the field of marketing painkillers. The same old messages presented the same old way won't work much longer with today's marketing-savvy consumer.

‘The time has come and gone for the guys in white lab coats.’

So says Rick Smith, SVP and managing director at Toronto-based Saatchi & Saatchi, to sum up the field of marketing painkillers. The same old messages presented the same old way won’t work much longer with today’s marketing-savvy consumer.

Smith, whose agency has the Tylenol account, says the uniformity that has plagued the analgesic (painkiller) category over the last decade most likely resulted from years of heavy regulation, which has prompted a ‘play it safe’ attitude. But as the regulations loosen – comparing competitors’ therapeutic effectiveness may be allowed in Canada within a year or so, for example – and marketers get smarter, he sees things getting more interesting.

Marta Cutler, EVP and co-creative director at MacLaren McCann, where she is currently working on the Motrin campaign, agrees that things have to change. ‘The last time I sat down and watched a reel of analgesic stuff was about three months ago, and honestly, all I remember is women in busy situations suddenly having headaches,’ she says. ‘It’s all pretty generic.’

Right now, the category seems to be in a transition period, and the creative runs the gamut from lab coats to walking headaches. To get a feel for what’s out there and what’s to come, Strategy asked agency execs working on the top analgesic accounts in Canada to explain their own campaigns, and comment on what others are doing in the field.

Johanne Cardinal, account director, BBDO, Toronto

Client: Bayer Canada (Aspirin)


There are two main messages with Aspirin: One is for arthritis, as a pain reliever, and the other is for the prevention of heart attacks.

We decided to go with arthritis basically because of the volume opportunities. Both Advil and Tylenol have gone there, as well. The boomers are getting to an age where the top end is just over 50, and so the pain from joints is becoming a fact of life for these people. But they want to continue to be active, maybe more so than the generation before.

Over the last couple of years, the figure of authority in the form of the doctor has been very important for us. We may stray from that, but it’s something that’s been working very well for Aspirin, so we’re keeping it for now.


What Advil is doing, which is really focusing on migraines, seems to be effective. With Advil it’s still, ‘We’re new, we’re innovative, we’re strong, we do the work.’ They seem to be communicating this fairly well, I think.

The last two spots – the one with the faucet dripping and the one where the woman wins the sweeps – are interesting, because there’s not a lot of dialogue. But if you suffer from migraines, you receive a strong empathy message.


One recent spot shows a guy shovelling his driveway, and then this snowplow comes by and adds three feet of snow. The line goes something like: ‘That’s pain. That’s Motrin pain.’

This works, but generally in analgesics, you can’t be seen as making light of people’s pain. Certainly when you speak to your target group in research, and you talk to people with chronic pain, it’s no laughing matter. Their pain becomes almost something like a child – it’s something they nurture.


Tylenol seems to be going after arthritis sufferers, with endorsements from Wayne Gretzky, and then more recently with the tap dancer.

The Wayne Gretzky endorsement might have backfired, I don’t know. When he first came out, good ol’ Wayne was going gangbusters, and he was doing a lot of commercials, [but] I don’t know about the credibility of someone who is still fairly young, even though he has been diagnosed as having osteoarthritis.

Catherine Shand,

VP, group account director, Young & Rubicam, Toronto

Client: Whitehall-Robins (Advil)


The brand image that comes across for all analgesics is ‘effective,’ but I would say with Advil we also stand for ‘leading edge.’ It’s a leading edge brand, it’s a straightforward and direct way for getting effective relief.

‘Advil is for today’s tough pain.’ That’s our tagline and it encapsulates the consumer and the brand together. That’s why both ‘today’ and ‘tough pain’ are in there.

I’m a migraine sufferer, and that line in our current spots, ‘nothing else matters,’ is the true insight. Every migraine sufferer, including myself, finds that. The key is to connect with what people are going through, and wrap that with something that’s memorable.


They definitely have a challenge, but when you look at other brands that have been around for literally 100 years, like Heinz, you see that they keep reinventing themselves. I mean, Heinz came out with green ketchup, for goodness sakes.

In Aspirin’s case, what they’ve been able to do as far as reinventing their brand is linking it to heart disease – the low-dose Aspirin thing. It breathes new life into the brand because it creates a loyalty among frequent users.


I think that they’re doing exactly what we’re trying to do, which is to find something that’s identifiable, like the pain you would feel if you’re at the bottom of the rugby pile, but making sure that it’s not dark and gloomy. The spots are memorable: If you’ve been there, then you can identify with that pain. And if you can do that, then you’re halfway there. All you have to do is connect your brand to it.


Tylenol, because it’s the leader, and it has been the leader for a long period of time, has a lot of trust. That’s my understanding of their positioning, that they’re a brand that consumers trust. And they’ve been consistent in delivering that message.

Rick Smith,

SVP, managing director, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, Toronto

Client: McNeil Consumer Healthcare (Tylenol)


Tylenol does far more than just arthritis. They market for headache, they market a children’s product, they market for all sorts of conditions, colds and flu and so on. There are Tylenol products across all of the different pain areas that you might experience, and they market them all.

Historically, there’s usually a branding campaign, but there’s also advertising campaigns for individual product lines that Tylenol offers. [Smith declined to provide further detail on Tylenol's marketing strategy.]


I think Bayer is a unique story, in that the thing that saved their entire business was the revelation that they’re good for the prevention of heart disease. I think they’ve done a really nice job of grabbing hold of that niche and making hay out of it.


I can’t say they’ve nailed relevance with the consumer yet, but they’ve certainly been going after a defined segment of pain relief with the migraine spots, and they’ve spent a fair number of dollars doing that, by the looks of things.

I would say about all of the Advil spots that it’s obvious they’re talking about pain, but I’m not sure if the consumer understands exactly what kind of pain, and I’m not sure about the branding.


I worked on the ‘That’s pain. That’s Motrin pain’ spots, and if you’re using Motrin as an example of a campaign that people remember, I would say the reason for that was simplicity and relevance. Every Canadian has had the experience of having heavy snow to shovel in their driveway and this just brought home a human truth to them, that really sung to them, and that’s why it has appeal. It’s relevant, and it’s solving a real problem.

Marta Cutler,

EVP, co-creative director, MacLaren McCann, Toronto

Client: McNeil Consumer Healthcare (Motrin)


We’ve always used humour for Motrin. Right from the very beginning. Because we looked around at what everybody else was doing and we said: ‘Oh my God, could it possibly be more serious? Let’s lighten it up.’

In the latest spot, you meet this persistent, annoying headache that won’t go away. It’s a headache with legs. But you never see the headache. The idea is that you can’t get rid of a headache easily, that’s why there’s Motrin. It’s about empowerment, it’s not about sympathy.

The other thing that we did, just to give it some more credibility, is you’ll notice that at the end of the spot it says, ‘from the makers of Tylenol.’ That’s very new for us.


I can’t recall any of their ads off the top of my head.


The one I always remember is that one with the woman who won the lottery huddling in that darkened room. I think it was definitely a step forward for Advil. Because Advil has traditionally been all about guys in white lab coats – very traditional headache advertising.


The recent headache stuff included the spot with the tap dancer and the jazz player. And I actually thought, for Tylenol, those spots were quite a step forward. It was like, good for you guys, you’re trying to move the brand forward and be more relevant. But whether those were the perfect executions or not is probably a question.