During the presidential election campaign of 2004, several pharma industry trade publications suggested that if Kerry/Edwards won the election, DTC (Direct to Consumer) ads for drugs would be banned. To be sure, Edwards did sponsor a bill that would have required DTC ads to include comparisions to competing products.

However, it may be the ads themselves that kill the golden goose.

ED agesTake for example ads for the Erectile Dysfunction (ED) drugs Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra. As I mentioned in a previous Pharma Marketing News editorial (see “Pushing the Envelope is Bad for DTC“), these ads are focusing on younger and younger men who are clearly not part of the typical ED demographic category with regard to age. I plotted the trend in a graph, estimating the age of the characters in these ads over the years (see graph at right).

A respondent to the survey “Are ED Ads Too Sexually Explicit” suggested that the “general rule of thumb in advertising” is to use spokespersons younger than your target.

Drugs Are Different Than Other Products — the Ads Should be Different Too!

I think the pharma industry is hiring too many agencies and consultants with packaged goods consumer marketing backgrounds believing they can learn something from them about advertising directly to consumers. What they forget is that drugs are not like cars or cereal! They are products that directly affect our health and need to be used with caution.

If DTC is to survive it needs to change. Ads need especially to be more educational. Nowhere in any ED ad have I seen any information about what ED is, what the symptoms might be, and who is likely to suffer from it.

If you are going to be sexually explicit, at least make it educational and motivate potential ED sufferers to seem medical attention. But, DTC drug ads are neither motivational nor educational.

DTC advertising gurus often say that drug DTC ads play an important role in motivating people to seek medical help for conditions. But if you hardly mention the condition, how’s the ad going to do this? As a matter of fact, 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.

The FDA, for one, is paying more attention and has issued new draft guidances for DTC (see article “FDA Draft Guidance for Print DTCA: Less than Feared“) that it hopes will help DTC ads better educate consumers about side effects of drugs and the medical conditions they treat. The draft guidance on disease awareness communications especially talks about this. It remains to be seen if any pharmaceutical company will follow these guidances.

Pfizer Missed An Opportunity

When Celebrex came under a cloud due to one or two clinical trials suggesting it might cause cardiovascular problems, Pfizer pulled Celebrex DTC ads from TV and shut down the celebrex.com Web site for a time. It is believed the FDA asked them to do this.

Pfizer could have used the opportunity to inform the public via DTC ads about the conflicting data and make it easier for the public and physicians to access the facts (e.g., the two clinical trials under discussion: the NCI APC cancer trial, which showed increased cardiovascular risk and the PreSAP cancer trial, which showed no problems).

Synergy Between TV and the Internet – Motivation and Education

Not enough effort or money, in my opinion, is spent to foster the synergy between DTC broadcast 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.