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Marketing Drugs: The Pitfalls of DTC

Posted by: Arlene Weintraub on November 5, 2009

Boniva.gif What happens when pharmaceutical company ads urge TV views and magazine readers to “ask your doctor” about a particular drug? A new study from market researcher Verilogue suggests patients either aren’t asking for the drug by name, or worse, they’re asking about its scary side effects. Verilogue came to that conclusion from a unique and useful vantage point: It recorded 12,500 real conversations between patients and physicians.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising is one of the most controversial issues in pharmaceuticals. Critics say the ads promote the over-use of prescription drugs that are sometimes dangerous. In fact, the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that allow drug companies to pitch their products directly to consumers.

But drug companies just keep placing all those ads—to the tune of $5 billion a year. That may be because some research suggests they actually do work. According to market researcher Milward Brown, DTC is especially effective for raising awareness of new brands. Milward Brown surveys patients, and has found that 50% of respondents report requesting drugs they’ve seen on TV or read about in a magazine. “More often than not, after someone sees an ad, they go on the Internet to get more information, so they can have an intelligent conversation about it with their doctor,” says Patrick Ryan, v.p. of Milward Brown’s health care practice.

Maybe so, but Verilogue’s researchers believe pharma companies could take several steps to make their ads more effective. They could provide doctors with materials that address patients’ side-effect concerns, for example. Most importantly, they should find new ways to connect meaningfully with patients. The most frequently remembered campaign in Verilogue’s study was for the osteoporosis drug Boniva, which actress Sally Field promotes. “Patients connect with Sally and see her as a trusted ally,” says Verilogue CEO Jeff Kozloff. “It’s the way she delivers the message. She gives examples of how she lives with the disease.”

Verilogue even suggests tactics that go way beyond advertising, such as trying to place drugs into story lines of TV shows and films. He isn’t aware of any companies that have tried that, but overall, he says, finding ways to connect emotionally with patients is important. “Don’t just speak to the patient,” he says. “Validate their experiences.” Could the latest hot drug be coming soon to a theater near you?

Reader Comments

Richard Meyer

November 5, 2009 6:50 PM

I admit that DTC marketing needs improvement but this study is flawed in so many ways that it's amazing that a publication like Business Week could buy into it.

The study sites the difference between the DTC campaign for Boniva and Cymbalta. While Cymbalta spent the most money, according to the study, Boniva did a lot better spending a lot less money because of a great campaign with Sally Fields.

Where do I start?

First it's a lot easier to ask for an osteoporosis drug than a drug that treats depression. I don't have the research in front of me but I bet people are more willing to admit they have osteoporosis than depression.

As for the 23 requests for specific drugs they must have been following my friends and family because within that circle of people I know of at least a dozen requests for specific drugs including me. I go to an Urgent Care Center where I ask for ALL my drugs and they give it to me on request.

According to Business Week: Verilogue's research will be sobering news to many in the pharmaceutical business. Despite the recession, the industry is still spending heavily on direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads—and taking flak for it. DTC spending is down just 7% so far this year, a relatively small drop. There are reasons for this too. First a lot of on air time is purchased in advance by media companies and has to be either used or they lose it. Second DTC budgets are usually set well in advance and it's hard to know what any brand spends because spending is usually bundled with either other brands or as part of an integrated media plan.

By the way I suggest that Verilogue contact the market research people at Amgen or Lilly and ask about the research they have on the ROI of DTC. Enbrel is an Amgen brand that has benefitted very much from DTC marketing thank you.

These articles are sure to cause DTC marketers more headaches as executives read them and ask "do we really need DTC marketing?" The answer of course is, yes we need DTC marketing, we just need it to be more relevant and transparent.

Jim Lefevere

November 6, 2009 9:19 AM

Research and statistics can be manipulated however you want to get the conclusion you want--that's not new. Where Rx firms are falling down is that can't break out of the mind set of running DTC. It's tried and true and what most marketing executives are familiar with (especially TV).

However, media fragmentation, changing attitudes of consumers and declining DTC effectivness calls into question the logic of continuing DTC in this manner.

DTC doesn't just need to more relevant and transparent it needs to provide value and inform in a way that reflects the changing habits and views of the customer they are trying to reach. Increasingly that is not through TV but through social media, cause based marketing initiatives and ongoing advocacy.

I think there has been a complete paradigm shift and social media is the biggest change to marketing in the last generation. It will take a few years for marketers to catch-up to the new reality.


November 6, 2009 5:36 PM

I'm looking forward to the study being released to the public, as it contradicts much existing information on DTCA in pharma. I'm a bit disappointed that the writers at BW have not included this fact in their articles on the Verilogue study. For more research on this topic, visit, or in particular, Thanks, Rooster

Reise Abenteuer

November 23, 2009 6:36 AM

Everybody was SO mad about the recent bonuses that were given from bailout money. Now, I can understand (sort of) that taxpayer money shouldn't go to nonperformers. However, a management person's bonus is an agreed upon portion of his total compensation. If he doesn't get the bonus that he was entitled to based on whatever this agreement was, then that's like docking his pay.

If he doesn't meet the bonus requirements, then he shouldn't get the bonus. But if he does, then he SHOULD get his bonus.
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November 29, 2009 2:43 PM

I cringe when I read this "...trying to place drugs into story lines of TV shows and films. "

What the heck, what is the world coming to?

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Service Dog

December 15, 2009 12:05 PM

It's not surprising to me that these ads don't work. The list of side effects they are required to state should scare any person with a brain.

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January 23, 2010 8:54 AM

I'm totally agree that we should refine how we promote drugs. Understand the pain of the patients and learn how to deal with that in ways that could make them feel safe and secure.

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Rick Stark

February 14, 2010 9:30 PM

It is interesting that they spend so many millions on the ads, given they don't have a truly dependable model to determine effectiveness.

Rick Stark

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February 20, 2010 5:53 PM

While the pharmaceutical industry is profiting from DTC advertising, it generates more money marketing to physicians.

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