Why do all medication ads have a blue man?

Dalibor Šumiga Behavioral marketing/Neuromarketing, Marketing


If you’ve ever looked at an OTC medication ad a little bit  closer, you’ve probably noticed that the vast majority of them have a blue silhouette of a man (see picture above) and a red area representing the point of pain.

Every time I ask someone from the pharma industry why they create similar ads continuously or if there is any research that has shown that this type of advertising is more effective than other, all I get from them is a smile. :-)



In the 80s, there was a saying, “No one got fired for buying IBM…” Were there alternatives? There were.

Were these alternatives perhaps cheaper and equally good? Maybe, but we should have learned a long time ago that people don’t make decisions that are based on rational reasoning.

For you as an individual, the biggest drive that motivates a certain pattern of behavior is the fear that you’ll regret your decision, and for the collective, the biggest drive is the fear that someone will say you’re to blame.

That’s why pharma ads have a blue silhouette – no one will fire you because you’ve done something the way it’s always been done, even if the ad fails.

Here are some life examples that show why we love to play it safe.



Even if you’re not a football fan, you probably like watching players take penalties. Research shows that most penalty takers shoot left or right. If the current score is a draw, then the highest percentage of players shoot in the middle and that is still a miserable 11%.

In this graph you can see all the percentages in all three scenarios – when the team is in the lead, when it is a draw and when the team loses (“dive” is the goalkeeper; “shot” is the player who takes the penalty).


So, although statistics show that in the vast majority of cases the goalkeeper will throw himself to the left or right side, but players still shoot left or right.

Why? Because they will turn out less stupid if they shoot into the corner of the goal and the goalkeeper defends the shot. It won’t be their spectacular miss but the goalkeeper’s spectacular save.



Another example is one that’s probably more familiar and relevant to you – McDonalds.

As Rory Sutherland would say, McDonalds is the best restaurant in the world because it’s very good at not being awful.

Consider it, if you often travel abroad, are hungry, have no aversion to fast food, the safest option in any country is McDonalds – the recipe and preparation process is identical anywhere in the world.

So, there’s a completely logical explanation in psychology why people play it safe.

In private life, that’s completely understandable, but in business, you can’t expect to make progress staying in the comfort zone.

If you do everything the same as the competition, the one who has a stronger brand and a bigger budget will win, not necessarily the one who’s better.

To beat the competition, you have to be different, you have to step out of your comfort zone and the traditional and established practices.

As the saying goes: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for…”. 

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