Bob Ehrlich, who writes a weekly DTC Perspectives e-mail newsletter, recently wrote:
“When drug ads warn about risks and side effects they use words that are open to interpretation such as rare, possible, may, higher chance, etc. These words have different meanings to each consumer. The imprecision in side effect language is dangerous. Usually consumers will magnify the risks of serious side effects and this may cause them to avoid drug treatment.”
While reading this, I did a little mental exercise in which I substituted “benefit” for “risk” and came to similar conclusions regarding vague benefit statements in DTC ads: consumers may magnify minor benefits and this may cause them to ask for drugs that they don’t need. Benefit statements may also be “imprecise” and thus dangerous.
The most infamous example I can think of regarding dangerous, imprecise benefit statements in DTC ads is the current Rozerem ad campaign. I’ve discussed this campaign in many previous posts to this blog. You can find them here:
First if all, there is not much of any benefit statement at all in the Rozerem print ads (see area “B” in image below): only about 5% of the print ad area is devoted to a benefit statement, which includes this: “Your doctor can explain why Rozerem is so different.” That’s not very precise! In fact, I am sure a focus group of consumers would give it much more positive weight than it deserves: “Oh! It’s different. Not just ‘different,’ but SO different! Sounds good!”
Ehrlich laments that advertisers are being hampered by FDA rules that do “not allow marketers to state risk from post marketing experience because it is anecdotal.” I wonder what kind of evidence Takeda has to support its “so different” claims? Could it also be anecdotal? I don’t think any kind of anecdotal experience has a place in advertising prescription drugs, although it seems that the FDA has no problem with celebrities citing their anecdotal benefits in ads.
Not many people would argue that the graphic images in DTC ads convey mainly perceptions of benefits — you don’t see any photos, for example, of people suffering side effects.
In Rozerem print ads, the graphic occupies about 81% of the ad area (see area “A” in image above). It must convey a very important message if the advertisers allocated all that space to it. But what is the message? It seems that only the ad agency that created the ad can interpret the true meaning of Abe and Beaver (for more on this, see the “Interpreting Rozerem DTC” section of the post “Odds & Ends & Interpretations“).
Here’s what Richard Meyer had to say over at World of DTC Markleting: “This is clearly what happens when creative people get too damn creative and lose sight of the key message. When people see commercials they should not have to think about what is being said it should be upfront so that that light can go on in their head but here we have a man in his kitchen with ‘Honest Abe’ and a beaver and ‘your dreams miss you!’…if this is good DTC then the pharma industry is in deep shit.”
Ehrlich ends his piece with: “If I might die or become permanently disabled from a drug reaction, I deserve more than vague words.” He was speaking about words used in the risk statements of DTC ads. I agree.
The same can be said, of course, for “vague” words and/or graphics used to convey benefit information in DTC ads. Rozerem is just an extreme case produced by a slick advertising agency that — as one commenter put it — is “toying” with us rather than being forthright.