Soothing, not confusing, words

Analgesics. Dermatological treatments. Respiratory medicine. It’s hard to understand what pharmaceutical firms are saying half the time. They mix and match the kind of language they’re using, and it doesn’t do them any favours.

Things usually start positively on the front of the packaging. A headache tablet might declare that whatever’s inside ‘hits pain fast’. But when I dig a bit deeper, the same firm says this particular product can treat ‘neuralgia’. All of a sudden I need a pharmacist to translate language that’s directed at me, the consumer. So the words aren’t doing the job they’re meant to. As our Padders says, there are times when an ‘occupational dialect’ is helpful, and others when it’s downright baffling.

Big pharma firms spend more on sales than R&D. They’ve realised that if they don’t sell their products to pharmacists, or pharmacy assistants, they’ve little hope of reaching consumers who come into a chemist with a migraine. But wouldn’t it be smarter to make how they talk about their products more appealing to customers directly?

When I worked with people in the world of pharma I’d often challenge them about their way with words. They’d blame regulators for their choice of language, or the categories they use to measure sales, or the fact that medicines don’t fly off the shelves. The language mixes up a few snappy headlines to hook customers in, before veering off into industry-speak. ‘They’re slow, not fast, moving consumer goods’, they’d say, by way of explanation.

But there’s a reason why it’s called ‘consumer healthcare’. The people buying are consumers, not doctors or pharmacists. And these are products that the government has said are safe for self-medication; shouldn’t we be able to understand everything the little leaflet that comes with the packet says?

If they manage to do that extra bit of thinking and talk to us in a language that makes sense first time, we’ll be more likely to trust them. And much more likely to look for their brands when we can feel a migraine coming on.

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