An article in Today’s Wall Street Journal suggests that some drug makers are starting to cut back TV ad spending (see “Some Drug Makers Are Starting To Curtail TV Ad Spending“). Pfizer and TAP were cited as examples.

TAP pharmaceuticals, for example, which spent “about $91 million advertising heartburn drug Prevacid on television in 2004, pulled the plug on TV commercials for the treatment late last year to focus on print media.”

Chalk it Up to the Need to Explain Risks vs. Benefits?
“Print advertising allows consumers to take their time reviewing important risk-benefit information,” Katherine Stueland, spokeswoman for TAP Pharmaceutical Products Inc., said. “Additionally, it gives us ample space to include that information.” (See “TV ads for heartburn drug Prevacid pulled“).

Back in January, I suggested that 30 or 60-second TV ads could not adequately communicate drug risk information (see “Can Drug Ads Communicate Risk?” Also, see PMN article: “Numbers, Math and Communicating Risk“)

Other Factors
Other factors may be at play here. How effective are TV ads anyway? Do they really increase drug sales? I don’t think the pharma industry (or any other industry for that matter) can actually prove that TV ads sell more products. The old adage “Half of my ad dollars are wasted, I just don’t know which half” is as true today as it ever has been.

“The pharmaceutical industry spent $4.45 billion on advertising to consumers in all media last year, a 27% increase over 2003,” according to the WSJ article. It spends a whole lot more on physician advertising. It’s difficult to determine, therefore, which channel of advertising is effective.

When DTC ads first ran on the Super Bowl in January, 2004, it was possible to measure an increase in newly written prescriptions for ED drugs immediately afterward (see “The New Written Prescription: Leveraging Technology to Measure Change in Physician Behavior as it Occurs“). However, physician details also increased during that time.

As the WSJ article points out “drug sales don’t necessarily rise or fall as TV ads are boosted or reduced. One reason is that, unlike with other products such as cars or fast food, a consumer can’t buy a prescription drug without a doctor’s signature.”

The article also mentions Pfizer’s cut back on Viagra TV DTC ads. There are multiple factors at play here — criticism by the FDA of a previous campaign is one. Pfizer also indicated it will be cutting back on marketing anyway (see “Pfizer to Slash 30% of its Sales & Marketing Staff“).

But most likely it has to do with market saturation. I believe that the drug industry has over-estimated the size of the DTC market and sales are not nearly what they anticipated they would be. Pfizer et al drank their own Kool Aid on this one (see “ED Drug Sales Limp“).

“Broadcast TV, I believe has to be part of the overall media mix,” says Stuart Klein, president of Quantum, a unit of ad giant WPP Group PLC that specializes in health-care products, including prescription drugs. “What I’m seeing is the recognition by companies that the last 5% to 10% of TV spending is much better spent on relationship marketing or on the Internet, where you can have a deeper dialog with people.”

I have noted before that surveys indicate there would be a shift away from broadcast TV ad spending by pharma and an increase in Internet (e-mail mostly) spending to improve compliance (see, for example, “DTC in 2005: Can You Teach Old Dogs New Tricks?“).

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.