The Sledgehammer

Parental Advisory: EXPLICIT CONTENT

September 20, 2021

In 1985, former Second Lady Tipper Gore bought the popular Prince album Purple Rain  for her young daughter. After listening to the lyrics of the song “Darling Nikki,” she realized that the title character was engaged in activities that were not suitable for her elementary school–aged children. So Tipper banded together with a few other outraged women in Washington and launched the Parents Music Resource Center. The group’s intention was to keep music riddled with swearing, sex, drugs, and violence out of the hands of their kids. And thus, the sticker we’ve all seen countless times, the Parental Advisory Label (PAL), was born.

There was plenty of pushback. During a Senate hearing called to discuss “record labeling,” Dee Snider of Twisted Sister accused the ladies of the PMRC of projecting their own lurid fantasies onto his music. Frank Zappa predicted that all American music would be reduced “to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show.” And John Denver—an unlikely crusader for sex, drugs, and rock & roll—floored Congress with his testimony supporting free expression.

Putting this PAL sticker on an album is a voluntary action by record companies, and there are no definitive criteria for what gets a sticker—only recommendations. Hilariously, Frank Zappa’s album Jazz from Hell  got a warning sticker, even though it’s an entirely instrumental album (presumably it’s the “Hell” in the album name, as well as another song title that got someone so worked up).

But here’s the kicker: the PAL sticker likely had the opposite effect of the one Tipper & Co. intended. According to many in the music industry, it attracted attention and made kids want those albums more.

Fresh Kid Ice of 2 Live Crew, whose 1990 album Banned in the U.S.A.  was the first to sport the current label and who had a previous album briefly outlawed for obscenity, claimed that the sticker actually helped sell their albums more because they seemed taboo. Marc Weinstein, a cofounder of Amoeba Music stores, said, “More often than not, from what I saw, it actually became a sales tool—it made it easier for teenagers to identify the cool stuff.”

This all points to a classic marketing truth: sometimes restricting your audience’s access is actually a good thing. Exclusivity—the perception that something is hard to get, limited in quantity, privileged, or restricted—can be a powerful motivator. Think about Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Lattes or McDonald’s McRib: they’re only available during certain times of year and have developed devoted followings. Or warnings that there are “only 2 seats left” for a flight in’s search results. Or “restricted” WiFi for Hilton Honors members (even though it’s actually free for everyone!). These ploys all make us pay at least a little more attention, if not act with downright urgency. In fact, in one study, consumers were willing to pay 50% more for a wristwatch advertised as an “exclusive limited edition” rather than a “new edition.”

So how can we put the exclusivity rule to work for healthcare? A few thought starters:

  1. Make access to information exclusive. Do you have a compelling story? Data? A new paper? Think about making it available exclusively. Maybe it’s available only after signing up, maybe only through a sales rep. Or perhaps it’s accessible only for customers who have consumed other  content first, enticing deeper engagement and demonstrating that they’re ready for the juicier stuff you have available.
  2. Create VIP programs. Can you create a special experience only for a subset of your audience? Of course it’s not about incentivizing anyone to prescribe, but perhaps there is a compelling experience you can offer—a Zoom call with the CEO, a webcast with a KOL, or an advisory board—that enables someone to receive valuable information and feel like an insider in the process.
  3. Plan smaller, more intimate events. Rather than cast as wide a net as possible for eyeballs, can you create experiences that are intentionally small—even if you must turn people away? Think of product theaters, speaker events, and KOL talks. Sometimes fewer attendees might mean greater engagement.
  4. Design certification programs. For products that require some complexity to dispense, implant, or use, can you initially limit access to only those who have undergone a certain degree of training—and then recognize them for it? It may decrease the pool of HCPs available to use your product, but it likely will also create demand to be one of those certified HCPs. It may also have the added benefit of ensuring a level of quality when it comes to using your product, leading to more positive experiences.
  5. Prequalify customers with an eligibility survey. Can you create a process by which patients can find out if they’re a likely candidate for a drug or procedure? In addition to learning valuable information about your audience based on their input, the appeal can tap into that human desire to find out if we’ve made the cut, if we’re on the list, if we’ve passed the test. And that inclination may be enough for patients to take an extra step toward finding out if your product is right for them.

When it comes to exclusivity, we’ve got plenty more ideas up our marketing sleeves. But they’re only available for a limited time and for our most ambitious Challenger marketers—so give us a buzz before this offer expires … forever ?.

At any given time, there are hundreds of actual sledgehammers present in the Heartbeat office. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge—a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you. Clear the way—here comes The Sledgehammer.