Is DTC Educational or Motivational? OpEd by John Mack

DTC ads made their first, albeit inauspicious, appearance during a Super Bowl broadcast this year. Unfortunately, this may have attracted a lot of unwelcome attention to DTC (see article “Super Bowl DTC Debut: Was It Good for You?“). The FDA, for one, is paying more attention and has issued new draft guidances for DTC (see article “FDA Draft Guidance for Print DTCA: Less than Feared“).

It is clear that the FDA would like to see DTC ads play a larger role in educating consumers. It believes consumer-directed promotion of prescription drugs “can convey useful health information to patients.”

The Coalition for Healthcare Communication (an organization representing several ad agencies and health communications companies), on the other hand, asserts that “the primary goal of direct to consumer advertising is and should be to convince a consumer to discuss a medical condition with his or her doctor. To ask advertising to educate is to ask it something it is not capable of doing.”

So, what is the proper role of DTCA – educational or motivational? Is it capable of doing either? If so, how well is it doing?

The FDA believes its guidance will help DTC ads educate consumers about side effects of drugs and the medical conditions they treat. The draft guidance on disease awareness communications especially talks about this. Although disease awareness commun-ications are not subject to FDA regulation, we might see more “Help-Seeking” ads sponsored by pharmaceutical companies in response to the guidance.

Personally, I have to agree with the advertisers who say that “awareness” is really not education. Education requires more depth and interaction than print or TV DTC ads can deliver.

So much for education, what about motivation?

According to a study by Prevention Magazine, the number of patients who talked to their doctors about an advertised medicine remained pretty steady at 31% to 32% between 1997 and 2001. That is, after several years of experience with DTC, the motivation needle hasn’t really budged.

As Kristine Nash-Wong points out in her article “Beyond Patient Education: Influencing Behavior Change,” motivating patients to change their behavior requires personalization, which is also something that traditional print and TV DTC ads cannot offer.

So, what’s a better idea?

Not enough effort or money, in my opinion, is spent to foster the synergy between DTC broadcast and print ads and the Internet. DTC ads focus on what may be a giant step for many people – go see your doctor. They don’t emphasize enough an intermediate step – i.e., go to a website to learn more about the condition, the treatment options and find motivational tools.

The FDA has urged that DTC broadcast ads refer viewers to an 800 number, website, or print ad to find more information. Print ads can include the full prescribing information and you can get brochures by calling the 800 number (although you might have to wait a long time; see article “Beyond DTC: Consumer Relationship Satisfaction“), but only the Web can offer in-depth education, interactivity, and personalization. This, not repetition of 30-second TV ads, is what’s needed to get more undiagnosed people to see a physician and to help motivate the diagnosed to stay on treatment.

Vol. 3, No.2: February 2004
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