Slate's Ad Report Card: Theraflu Sickness

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Slate contributor Seth Stevenson reviews the new commercials promoting the flu and cold medication Theraflu. The campaign depicts sick people as disfigured monsters transformed back into regular humans with a single dose of Theraflu Thin Strips.


Now for our regular look at the business of advertising. As though winter illnesses were not depressing enough, every year our televisions are filled with images of people coughing and sneezing and generally looking run-down. These are the ads meant to sell us cold and flu remedies; but this year one company is trying a more artsy approach. And Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate says it works, sort of.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Reporter, Slate)

Last winter TheraFlu ran straightforward 15-second TV spots introducing its line of thin strips, which are little gel tabs that melt on your tongue. The goal was simply to announce the new product. The campaign's tag line was, have a cold? Want to lick it?

As you might expect, cold and flu medicine ads run only during flu season. There's not much to gain by promoting you're a flu cure in July. When it came time to develop this winter's campaign, Novartis, maker of TheraFlu, hired a new ad agency and asked for something different; and that's what Saatchi & Saatchi gave them.

We see a city bus pull up to a curb where it is boarded by some sort of monstrous demon (unintelligible). The creature has a malformed head and a gargoylish prong of a nose. Other passengers recoil in horror as it walks down the aisle coughing and sniffling. He 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.

This ad certainly cuts through the clutter. With its gunmetal gray palette and its Sparse piano score it's a far cry from, want to lick it? And the similar 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. One woman even leaps to the curb when she sees him boarding. But then he sits down next to an adorable little girl who isn't frightened at all. I was just certain she was going to teach us all an important lesson on tolerance. Then finally the Thin Strips package showed up and 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. And TheraFlu sales are up 20 percent over last year. My only quibble; the tone is a little too somber. It's the music that does it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVENSON: All this downbeat soundtrack might render the ad funny or heart warming. As it is, the spot feels nightmare-like and disconcerting. That's great for our creepy indie movie, but I wouldn't have guessed it's the best way to sell flu medicine. By the way, there's no dialogue at all in this spot. We're in a companion spot that shows a similarly grotesque man coughing and sniffing his way through an office.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVENSON: I think we'll see more of this approach in the future. It's a cost-saver for multi-national products since the same ad can run unaltered on multiple continents. The bus spot was shot in Rio De genaro, Brazil, 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. I give the ad a B. The company told me we're meant to empathize with a 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.

CHADWICK: Opinion from Seth Stevenson who writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine Slate. And you'll find video of the TheraFlu bus ad at

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