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 Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.