Ad Report Card

Sick and Twisted

The creepy new ad for Theraflu.

Theraflu Thin Strips The Spot: A city bus pulls up to a curb, where it is boarded by some sort of monstrous demon-being. The creature has a malformed head and a gargoyle-ish prong of a nose. The other passengers recoil in horror as it walks down the aisle, coughing and snarfling. It takes a seat in the last row, next to a little girl and her grandmother. The old woman reaches inside her purse and pulls out some Theraflu Thin Strips. The monster takes the medicine—and is transformed into a regular guy.

Last winter, Theraflu ran straightforward, 15-second spots introducing its line of “Thin Strips,” which are little gel tabs that melt on your tongue. The goal was simply to announce a new product. The campaign’s tag line was: “Have a cold? Wanna lick it?”

Flu medicine ads, as you might expect, run only during flu season. (There’s not much to gain by promoting your flu cure in July.) When it came time to develop this winter’s campaign, Novartis—the maker of Theraflu—hired a new ad agency and asked for something different. “They came to us because they wanted to cut through the clutter in the category,” says Tony Granger, chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi. “They didn’t want a doctor in a white coat, or a kid in pajamas getting medicine from mom.”

This ad certainly cuts through the clutter. With its gunmetal-gray palette and its sparse piano score, the clip feels more like a Hal Hartley film than like your average cold-remedy commercial. It’s a far cry from “Wanna lick it?” (and the similarly hokey mediocrities that dominate this sector).

In fact, the first time I saw this ad I was shocked. I honestly thought it would turn out to be a public service announcement about the importance of having compassion for the disfigured. The sick man’s face looked gruesome—all waxy and bulbous—and his elongated forehead seemed to reference Eric Stoltz’s character in Mask. The cruel people on the bus turned their backs on him (one woman even leapt to the curb when she saw him boarding). But then he sat down next to an adorable little girl who wasn’t frightened. I was certain she was about to teach us all an important lesson (on looking past facial deformities to the beautiful person inside, blah blah). Then finally the Thin Strips package showed up, and it threw me for a loop.

Since getting our attention is half the battle—and the ad achieves that—I think this spot is mostly a success. Granger says Theraflu sales are up 20 percent over last year, so the numbers seem to confirm this.

My only quibble: The tone is a little too somber. It’s the music that does it. A less downbeat soundtrack might render the ad funny, or heartwarming. As it is, the spot feels nightmarelike and disconcerting. That’s great for a creepy indie movie, but I wouldn’t have guessed it’s the best way to sell flu medicine.

Side note: This ad’s silent-movie approach (there’s no dialogue at all) is one we’ll see more of in the future, I think. It’s a cost-saver for multinational products since the same ad can run unaltered on multiple continents. This particular spot was shot in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, according to Granger, but the production team strove to avoid any “specific national flavor.” Novartis (a Swiss firm) is running the ad in places ranging from South America to Russia.

Grade: B. Granger says we’re meant to empathize with the guy who has a “monstrous cold.” Perhaps if I had the flu right now I’d feel different, but I find myself empathizing with the onlookers. The ad keeps cutting to reaction shots of nice, normal people who become discombobulated when this mutant dude enters their midst. It seems to say: “Take Theraflu—not because you’ll feel better, but because the people around you will be put at ease.” I suppose that’s a selling point, too. But it’s a little hard on the sick. We’ve gone from, “Oh, you poor thing!” to, “Get better already, you grotesque freak!”