Advertising for the treatment of thrush has hit prime-time TV. But have the campaigns found the right spot?
It's the creative brief from hell. The company's marketing director has called up, bursting with the happy news that one of his medical products is now available over the counter (OTC) rather than just on prescription. "Let's go on telly," he chirrups.

There's just one problem. The product in question is a treatment for a rather indelicate condition that involves lots of itching in female areas. Thrush, in other words. And he wants a national TV advertising campaign.

Mmmm, you're thinking. Now how do we do that without being offensive/patronising/incurring the wrath of the censors/just plain smutty?

Perhaps this isn't quite what happened, but it's fun to imagine how the current, erm, rash of thrush-treatment commercials developed from fond twinkles in the respective clients' eyes, to the embarrassingly regular slots of prime commercial airtime with which we are now being bombarded.

Thrush, for your information, is caused by a fungus that normally lives quite happily in moist body areas, but multiplies without control, causing discharges and uncomfortable itchiness, when those moist areas lose their acidity.

That can be caused by anything from a particularly bubbly bubble bath, a course of antibiotics, vigorous sexual activity or even jeans that are too tight. It is a condition that apparently affects 75 per cent of all women, mostly in their vagina, but it can also occur in the mouth or between the toes, thus effecting men too.

The reason why treatments for this disorder are now being advertised on the nation's TV screens, rather than the safely obscure pages of Chemist and Druggist Weekly, is because of the Government's ongoing drive to make formerly prescription-only drugs available over the counter, direct to the consumer. And television, after all, is one of the best ways of broadening awareness to a wider audience.

The two products currently enhancing our commercial TV viewing are Canesten Combi, the market leader, which gained OTC status in 1992, and the relatively new Diflucan One, which was launched OTC in November 1995.

The Canesten commercial, by Euro RSCG Healthcare - an agency staffed largely by pharmacists and which specialises in marketing health products - is the one starring the women's magazine's editor. The "editor" (you know she is one because she's got a plaque on her desk that says so) is sitting in front of a pile of readers' letters and she cheerily addresses the camera saying, "I get a lot of letters about thrush...".

Diflucan, however, is the fancier ad with the higher production values (the product costs a princely pounds 12.50 compared with Canesten's more affordable pounds 7.49). It is set in a smart restaurant with two working girls, one of whom is a "thrush sufferer". Before they settle down to lunch, however, the "sufferer" rather indiscreetly pops a pill - her thrush treatment, of course - then gaily pursues her career-girlish chat.

The two ads clearly demonstrate different ways of tackling what is an undeniably tricky brief, but do the companies and their agencies really think they have pitched it right? Surely most women can tell that Canesten's "editor" isn't a real editor (indeed, no self-respecting editor would have a plaque on their desk), and wouldn't they have similar difficulty buying the let-me-just-take-my-thrush-treatment-before-I-tuck-into-this- sundried-tomato-salad approach?

"We did extensive research and found that women didn't want to be patronised but sought up-front information," explains Michaela Griggs, the assistant product manager on Canesten. "They wanted to know that there was an easy solution to the problem, what it was and where they could get it."

Griggs insists that numerous focus groups and research into the current campaign, which ran first as a test in January 1996, have been resoundingly encouraging. That, in fact, is why they have hung on to this particular execution and plan to extend the campaign until March, investing an ambitious pounds 5m into advertising this year.

"Women really liked the style of the TV ad. They could relate to it because it was not coy. A lot of women get thrush but they still think they are suffering alone. This ad makes them feel normal," she urges.

Diflucan, on the other hand, is currently researching what is its first foray into TV advertising - a test in the London region during January - with a view to rolling it out nationally this summer, if successful.

"In essence, the strategy focused on the idea that this treatment is fast, effective and, most importantly, in easy tablet form," says Sara Sorby, account director on Diflucan at its advertising agency, Integrator. "The restaurant setting was to make the point that the one thing you want to do when you've got thrush is to get on with the treatment, rather than wait till the end of the day, as you have to with other products."

Sorby robustly defends the bald challenge that women just don't do that in restaurants.

"I don't think it's an unreal scenario. It is very positive and upbeat and stylish. It is saying, `Take a pill and get on with your life'."

Despite Sorby's enthusiasm, you could be forgiven for wondering what the rejected advertising ideas were like, if these were the ones that made it. Canesten evidently toyed with going down the scientific route, with lines such as "Bayer, the experts in thrush, bring you..." or "Many doctors recommend". In more fanciful moments, they even joked about using a celebrity, but one of the many restrictions controlling medical advertising outlaws this (along with using medical professionals or appearing before the 9pm watershed).

Diflucan, on the other hand, insists rather stuffily that its restaurant storyline was an early solution that they stuck with.

But Trevor Beattie, the creative behind such memorable campaigns as the Nissan Micra and the Wonderbra, believes both ads are missing a trick.

"They've got it all wrong. No one can remember the brand names from these ads. They are going really big on the thrush and really small on the product, when it should be the other way round. Everyone knows about thrush - it's the branding that should be massive, so women know what to ask for at the chemists," he suggests brightly.

Whichever is the best solution, and whether consumers really want this sort of commercial message punctuating their TV suppers, the fact that we are now witnessing such advertising indicates a possibly alarming trend. Whatever next, you might be thinking. An unashamedly graphic ad plugging the latest wonder-cure for genital warts?n