Drug advertisers still in the dark ages

Pharmaceutical advertisers reluctant to embrace medium shifts seen in other sectors.

Pharmaceutical advertising is often a subject of controversy. In the UK (and, indeed, in most other countries), we are shielded from its more direct forms thanks to EU regulations which prevent direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs. In the US, however, pharmaceutical companies face no such restrictions; from unsettling and often ill-judged TV ads to drug slogans plastered across every billboard, DTC advertising in the US is endemic.

Americans are bombarded daily with adverts for products across the whole spectrum of pharmaceuticals. From cancer treatments and psychotropics to drugs for erectile dysfunction and weight loss, DTC adverts for prescription drugs are as prevalent as those for beauty products and ‘this-weekend-only’ deals on furniture. This kind of blanket advertising is not without its merits:  many argue that DTC marketing in the US is many people’s main source of information about new drugs and, indeed, may prompt some patients to seek treatment for a disease they didn’t even know they had. This mass-marketing might is also DTC advertising’s weakness: as pharmaceutical marketers cannot exclusively target their intended treatment-seekers, the majority of the audience feel excluded and apathetic. These drugs aren’t for them.

Not everyone thinks that DTC advertising is strictly ethical, despite the stringent rules outlined by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Indeed, the US regulator has often had to order pharmaceutical companies to discontinue DTC advertising campaigns . An example of this is the recent reminder ad for an insomnia drug from Takeda with the tagline: “Rozerem would like to remind you that it’s back to school season.” The ad featured images of children in schools: in slightly poor taste, since the safety information included with the drug stated that: “It is not known what effect chronic or even chronic intermittent use of Rozerem may have on the reproductive axis in human development.”

There is also a view that suggests DTC advertising may be to blame for the rise in healthcare costs. Only the newest and most expensive drugs justify the massive budgets associated with advertising through traditional media channels. Patients are therefore encouraged to ask their prescriber – who themselves receive direct marketing from drug reps – for these premium treatments, potentially driving up the costs of healthcare insurance.

But DTC marketers are advertising dinosaurs: homes in the developed world have been swamped with advertising for decades. Traditional advertising channels are getting old, their possibilities all but exhausted. With the advent of modern technology and continuing evolution (and uptake) of social media, there are newer, fresher ways of influencing and targeting interested consumers. DTC advertisers are lagging behind in this respect. They have only just begun to venture online and build multi-layered, multi-channel campaigns with a view to engaging directly with the patient. This is partly due to the lack of guidance from the FDA: the regulator is yet to provide clear rules as to what exactly allowed in the online advertising space. However, there is also the question as to why a pharmaceutical giant would want to engage its customers in this direct manner, when one angry patient’s feedback through social media could lead to millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Ultimately, regardless of questions of ethics or effectiveness, DTC marketing is a hugely influential part of the US pharmaceutical industry, with over $4 billion spent in 2011 alone. However, times are changing. Unless DTC marketers are able to change and adapt to the new standard in advertising – capitalizing on the growth of online media in the process – they may soon face extinction.

Kimberley Carter is a Life Sciences Analyst at GBI Research.

Photograph: Getty Images

Kimberley Carter is a Life Sciences Analyst at GBI Research.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.