nurofen ad

It’s a headache that ibuprofen won’t cure: Nurofen owner Reckitt Benckiser is facing a double whammy of having to pull certain products from the shelves in Australia, and awaiting a ruling from the Advertising Standards Agency in the UK over an allegedly misleading ad.

Although RB has been adamant that the Australian ruling doesn’t affect the UK, the fact is that bad PR is global; there’s now a petition to have similar products removed from the UK. And, of course, that long-running ASA investigation is set to keep the issue in the spotlight over here too.

The challenges faced by Nurofen raise several important questions about the role of brands, and branding, in the over the counter category.

What the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission objected to was general painkillers being sold with names suggesting they were intended for particular complaints, when in fact they were the same product – ibuprofen lysine 342mg. The products it took exception to were Nurofen Back Pain, Period Pain, Migraine Pain and Tension Headache. It also said that there was hardly any difference between these and standard Nurofen, except in price.

It’s worth pointing out that the situation in the UK is different – here, most of the Nurofen products branded around specific complaints are, in fact, distinct. They all have the same basic active ingredient, ibuprofen, but come in a range of physical formats, some of which use the chemical forms ibuprofen lysine and sodium ibuprofen. There’s one exception: Nurofen Migraine Pain and Tension Headache are the same product here too.

There is some further overlap between the Australian case and the ASA investigation here in the UK. The ASA is looking into two separate claims made in a TV advert for Nurofen Express earlier this year. The first is that the product provides “faster headache relief than standard ibuprofen or paracetamol” – which is a matter for complex scientific evidence, and part of the reason the investigation has been ongoing since March.

The second question for the ASA is whether the advert implies that Nurofen Express directly targets the head – and this is where the overlap appears with the situation in Australia.

The ACCC has been lauded for protecting the interests of consumers by clamping down on Nurofen, but consumer interests in the OTC category can be less than straightforward. For shoppers in immediate need of pain relief, specifically labelled packs – like Nurofen Migraine – do offer a real point of difference: assurance that they are buying the right product.

Of course, there is a fine line to tread, and packs should not imply that their contents were actually developed for one particular type of complaint when this isn’t the case. It’s important that adverts don’t do this either, which is why the ASA’s investigation is necessary.

But it’s worth remembering that branded painkillers ultimately offer what all brands offer: confidence. Yes, as a consumer you can choose to buy generic own-label products, but many choose to pay more for a brand they trust. The large price differential with own label, in some cases, reflects the importance consumers place in getting the right treatment when they’re in pain.