An Olympic medalist promotes Lilly’s migraine medicine (with an asterisk)

Did Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton really start her day with a bowl of Wheaties?  Does superstar golfer Jordan Spieth really crack open a Coca-Cola after 18 holes?

Product promotions by athletes are often hazy and hard to figure out. And in that vein, you can add this latest one: Olympic swimmer Ryan Murphy’s promotion of Emgality, a migraine medicine made by Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co.

On April 14, he announced on Instagram: “Thrilled to announce a partnership with @emgality, a preventive migraine treatment. I appreciate the support as I continue on the road to Tokyo.”

And Lilly has produced at least two video commercials featuring Murphy. In one, he talks about how he deals with migraines: doing stretches, cutting vegetables in his kitchen, and relaxing on the couch.

“I do a whole bunch of different things to try to prevent migraine, because for me, the pain is really tough,” he says.

But one thing you won’t see: Murphy taking Emgality, a monthly injectable drug approved to treat migraines and cluster headaches. That’s because he doesn’t take it.

Murphy, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, doesn’t exactly come right out and say it. But if you stop one of the videos at the 00:13 mark, as Murphy is doing a backstroke in the pool, you can see this small type at the bottom of the screen for two seconds: “Ryan Murphy does not take Emgality.”

That’s right. Murphy doesn’t take the medicine he is being paid to promote.

Why would Lilly pay an athlete to promote a product he doesn’t take?

“That seems odd to me,” said Mark Ganis, owner of Chicago-based agency Sportscorp Ltd. “…The likelihood is that they’re hoping nobody really pays attention to that level of detail and just assumes that he’s taking the medicine.”

Lilly won’t say how much it paid Murphy to promote Emgality, but said Murphy’s appearance on behalf of migraine pain could help others. The drug costs more than $7,000 a year before discounts.

“Ryan Murphy, who does not take Emgality but lives with migraines, is passionate about migraine prevention, which inspired his partnership with Emgality,” Lilly spokeswoman Marlo Scott said in an email to IBJ. “We support Team Lilly athletes such as Ryan in sharing stories, so that others impacted by similar challenges can find inspiration in their experiences.”

Neither Murphy nor his agent, Brian Bishoff of WME agency, responded to several emails from IBJ seeking comment.

The ad campaign featuring Murphy is not the first time Lilly has paid an athlete for a product promotion under similar circumstances.

Gymnast Laurie Hernandez has appeared in a paid spot for Trulicity, a Lilly diabetes medicine, saying her father, Tony, has the disease and she tries to help him make good choices with diet and exercise.

Then, in very small type, for about three seconds starting at the 00:08 mark, you can see this at the bottom of the screen: “Tony Hernandez is living with Type 2 diabetes. He is not taking Trulicity.”

Some athletes and celebrities do suffer from migraine and actually take products they endorse. Tennis player Serena Williams takes Ubrelvy, a medication made by drugmaker Abbvie. Celebrity model Khloe Kardashian takes Nurtec, a migraine medication made by Biohaven Pharma.

Despite the oddity, some sports marketing experts say they like Lilly’s commercial with Murphy, whether or not he takes the drug he is promoting.

“I thought it was really effective marketing,” said Larry DeGaris, co-director of the Center for Sports Sponsorship at the University of Indianapolis.

He added: “Lilly’s goal is to have Emgality be part of that discussion, realizing that it won’t be part of everyone’s treatment plan. Sure, it’d be better if Murphy were to take Emgality, but there’s still a big benefit in having a successful Olympian lead a conversation on this specific health issue. I don’t think it hurts the message. ”

But he did have a suggestion for Lilly: Next time it features Murphy, show all his gleaming Olympic medals.

By the way, in that April Instagram message, Murphy also included a small disclaimer. At the very bottom, beneath a picture of Murphy wearing an USA Olympic zip-up jacket, it says: “Not a patient on Emgality.”

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One thought on “An Olympic medalist promotes Lilly’s migraine medicine (with an asterisk)

  1. DTC needs to go away…..goofy to have someone hawking a drug they don’t take…only in America and New Zealand does this occur….why do drugs cost so much….Things that make you go hmmmm….

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