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1 June 2012updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

Drug advertisers still in the dark ages

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

By Kimberley Crter

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.

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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.