Strategy & Competition

Ask Your Doctor If This Ad Is Right for You


Does it seem like you hear the phrase "ask your doctor" every time you turn on the TV? There's a reason. Drug companies spend about $5 billion a year in the U.S. on ads imploring people to talk to their physicians if they think a pill they've read about or seen on TV might help them. Such ads are so pervasive one might assume viewers are heading to the doctor knowing which drugs they want. But new research based on recordings of conversations in physicians' offices suggests most patients aren't asking for drugs by name. Or they're only asking about scary side effects, which drugmakers have to include in ads, often in stomach-turning detail.

Market researcher Verilogue recorded 12,500 patient-doctor conversations in 2008 and found only 23 requests for specific drugs. And according to the new study, which Verilogue showed to BusinessWeek in advance of its Nov. 9 release, the most expensive ad campaigns did not prompt the greatest number of inquiries. Eli Lilly (LLY) spent $179 million on ads promoting its depression drug Cymbalta in 2008, making it the year's most pricey pharma campaign, according to TNS Media Intelligence. But the most frequently cited drug by patients was Boniva, for osteoporosis, which GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Roche co-marketed. The Boniva campaign, starring actress Sally Field, cost half as much as the Cymbalta blitz.

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. Retailers, by contrast, have slashed advertising by 18%; spending on auto ads is down 31%.

Study: Drug Ads Can Backfire Some lawmakers wish drug companies would exercise more restraint. On Oct. 8, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced a bill proposing that drugmakers no longer be allowed to deduct marketing expenses from their taxes, as companies generally can. "This legislation will remove these benefits so pharmaceutical companies can focus on developing new drugs, not excessive marketing schemes," Franken's office said in a statement.

The Verilogue study suggests those ad schemes often backfire, anyway. For example, researchers found that the fifth most heavily advertised drug, sanofi-aventis' (SNY) insomnia remedy Ambien, was often remembered for side effects like hallucinations, sleep-eating, and other problems. "I think it's, uh, Ambien that says you might go out to eat and not remember," said one patient in the study. "I thought, 'great, all I need.' " The campaign cost sanofi $151 million last year, and Ambien sales actually fell by 37%, to $806 million. Sanofi declined to comment.

Verilogue CEO Jeff Kozloff believes pharmaceutical companies aren't doing a thorough job preparing doctors to discuss such worries. He says they should be giving physicians brochures, visual aids, and even anecdotes they can use to help patients weigh the benefits and risks of a drug. "Patients are looking for their concerns to be addressed up front," Kozloff says.

Companies can also adopt another proven strategy: promoting drugs using real patients who also happen to be famous. It worked for Boniva. According to researcher IMS Health (RX), prescriptions for the osteoporosis drug were up 11% last year, and sales of the drug grew 25%, to $675.6 million. Sally Field, who played the Flying Nun on TV, as well as Norma Rae on film, happily tells everyone Boniva halted and reversed her bone loss. "The term you hear across the board in advertising is 'authenticity,' " says Richard "Erik" M. Gordon, assistant professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "People want to believe a celebrity isn't just doing this because they were paid a pile of money."
Arlene_weintraub
Weintraub is a senior writer for BusinessWeek's Science & Technology department.

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