Stop branded DTC Advertising?

Watching US TV it is hard to believe that there was no DTC Pharma TV advertising before 1997. It was then that Michael Friedman, at that time a deputy commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, announced the policy change which opened up a vast and untested venue for drug companies’ marketing departments by freeing TV drug ads of the previously unworkable requirement that they painstakingly detail side effects.

This move has delivered on the health benefits that Dr. Friedman imagined: The ads raise awareness of disease, promote greater consumer awareness about prescription drugs and prompt consumers to talk to their doctor about often sensitive topics. Indeed, patients report valuing the information they receive. The ads appear to not only drive conversations between patients and doctors but also remind those who have been prescribed medicines to take them.

So, there is an upside, but this move, which at the time was neither actively sought by nor much discussed within the industry trade association, Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America does add pressure to the medical profession to prescribe the specific branded drugs that patients request – driving up the costs of healthcare.

From the Pharma industry a groundswell of opinion is starting to question whether opening up TV to DTC has had long term benefits for the pharmaceutical companies. More specifically, questions are being asked about whether this has been good for Pharma communications or has now become a major burden for the industry that does little for patients or improved healthcare.

Looking at the effect that DTC has on brands is enlightening. The agencies that support these ads advise the industry that they strengthen brand loyalty, increase brand awareness and drive sales; they would wouldn’t they? TV advertising for Pharma has been very good for the TV companies and the advertising agencies.

But do they really benefit the brands? Surveys now show that consumers/patients often perceive that these ads make drug developers appear to be more concerned with sales than with treating patients and research into medical conditions.

Intuitively, consumers know that Pharma companies are not altruistic but still they have difficulty in distinguishing commercial objectives (and that the companies have to keep an eye on the bottom line) from the concern that Pharma companies have for their customers’ health. Consumers are much happier at the prospect of Pharma companies spending billions on research and development than (admittedly much smaller amounts) on advertising.

Why are they feeling this? Partly, because TV ads for these drugs have just become plain vanilla. Much of the TV coverage suffers from such a serious degree of sameness and ubiquity. [See https://mytubefacetwitter.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/where%E2%80%99s-the-big-idea-in-your-communications/] There’s nothing in these ads that develops brand loyalty because there is no competitively distinguishable brand positioning demonstrated in the advertising.

So why are these companies continuing to pump (at the last estimation) up to $5bn into advertising every year? Firstly, it is argued that because of the competitive pressures in the industry, companies can’t forgo the ads; they have to keep up with rivals who are also promoting their products on TV.

Excuse me? Poppycock. If you need plain vanilla advertising to keep pace with the competition then someone is not doing their job properly. Your communications strategy and objectives are all wrong.

This is negative advertising, saying nothing more than we exist so choose us instead of our competitively undifferentiated colleague. Nice.

Now it’s been proposed that instead of each brand advertising its own products drugmakers collaborate on disease-focused campaigns that raise awareness of certain conditions and urge patients to talk to their doctors for treatment options.

This would certainly cut companies’ advertising budgets, end the ridiculous laundry list of frightening side effects mandated by the FDA and deliver important information to patients. The vision is that there would be unbiased information about the medical conditions and encouragement to seek out the medicines and vaccines that can help patients maintain and improve their health. It is argued that with this collaboration drug companies could trim their TV marketing budgets. Advertising agencies and broadcasters would still retain some of the billions of dollars in drug ads that support programming, including news. Patients and caregivers would be spared the assault of promotional messages, often unintelligible warnings about side effects, and cloying images that make up much of current TV drug advertising.

Wonderful, but this is avoiding the issue. This treats the symptom and not the cause. TV advertising is failing to achieve cut through because the advertisements are not imaginative or sufficiently compelling to change consumer behavior – thus making the investments worthwhile.

This industry does not need more awareness campaigns, it needs better communication strategies. The sooner we stop using regulation as an excuse for failing to create effective communications, the better. Every time you allow a communication to air that fails to cut through, you damage your brand. The opportunity to advertise DTC is too good to waste that way.

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