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.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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