Prescription Drug & Advertising

Prescription Drug & Advertising



Prescription Drug Advertising | Direct to Consumer | DTC RX ads | ACT2We have come a long way from Speedy’s Alka-Seltzer on our black and white TV, so far that at times glitzy prescription drug spots appear to dominate our already annoying and overly loud commercials.  From well-known actors and other public figures to caricatures and cartoons, these ads are all replete with music and all designed not to inform us but to persuade us to convince our doctor to prescribe what the ad is selling.

In addition, there are multiple page advertisements in newspapers and magazines hawking powerful remedies for serious illnesses.  The size of these announcements include compulsory lengthy small print requirements listing side effects, contra-indications, warnings etc., which very few of us read and even fewer comprehend.

We have watched a US Senator and soccer legend hype a drug that has a warning about a serious side effect “lasting more than four hours” that has been the source of many “Mommy what does that mean?” questions.  This closely followed by the visage of two people sitting in bath tubs in their backyard.  I can’t figure that one out yet.

This unique advertising process is dubbed Direct-to-Consumer or DTC’s.  The term might have existed before but Google it and the references to prescription drug infomercials dominate the hits.  Maybe the drug industry did not create this acronym, but their marketing programs surely embody it.

APrescription Drug Advertising | Direct to Consumer | DTC RX ads | ACT2mericans spend more time watching television than any other form of entertainment including reading, radio, movies etc.  This makes TV the best source of a captive audience.  Studies have shown that TV advertising is twice as effective at increasing sales as the next best performing category, print media.  Sounds like Big Pharma read those findings and literally bought into both groups big-time.

Just an aside, there is only one other nation on the planet that allows such advertising: New Zealand.  The reason may be the fact that there are 20 times more sheep than people in that lovely country and perhaps their ads are reflective of that market.

In America, consumer driven products and service industries rule, from beer and batteries to movies and cosmetics.  Some are funny: the ever popular Aflac duck vs. Geico’s gecko.  However, what is not funny is when children become a vulnerable target requiring parents to (hopefully) tell their kids why fast food and fries and caffeine drinks do not constitute a healthy diet irrespective of the contra-claims on kids-oriented ads.  The rash of childhood obesity tells us who wins.  That promotion know-how has now been brought to prescription drugs, far more dangerous than a Big Mac.

Prescription drug advertising has given us a new term: non-controller targets, in this case patients who, as the target, are emboldened to accomplish what few drug salesman could: convincing the actual controller, the physician, what they should prescribe.  That is what the drug companies hoped would result and it has.  Ask your doctor.

So, as you are the actual mainstay of these programs, the question is: Do you benefit from prescription drug advertising?  It’s a fair question and one we all should be asking.

Let’s look at some issues.

Most often the non-stock market value of a company or an industry rests largely with how they are perceived.  Tobacco companies make profits but their reputation with the public is poor at best.  Likewise, a recent survey concluded that only 1/3 of the respondents rated the pharmaceutical industry as good and significantly less as excellent.  Their reservations generally dealt with the cost of drugs rising without any seeming justification.  The response from the industry was the always popular “the cost of research and time to bring a product to market.”

What they fail to add is an additional reason, the cost of advertising.  TV spots and multiple page newspaper spreads are not cheap and we pay for them either at the point of sale or with increasing premiums from Part D Medicare providers.  A win-win for the industry but not for you.

Prescription Drug Advertising | Direct to Consumer | DTC RX ads | ACT2

The other point to keep in mind is the principal objective of the direct-to-consumer approach: using you as the pivotal point for increasing the sales volume of a drug.  Consider this: we are not talking about buying an appliance.  These are products that you cannot in all conscience discern as being what is best for you and which can only be ordered by a physician.  Your doctor and pharmacist are surely better resources than the TV spot of a bumble bee talking about antihistamines or the man dressed all in orange proclaiming the good of one of the statins.

Moreover the drugs that we see on TV are often replacements for well-known generic products but carrying much higher prices along with undetermined results and undiscovered long term side-effects.  Effectively you are paying for the continued research on these products while also assuming risks over which you have little control and even less understanding.

There are good reasons why these are called prescription-only drugs.  They carry risks.

DTC’s were first used in the 80’s for an “antihistamine that did not cause drowsiness.”  Patients loved the sales pitch and doctors acceded to their requests.  In a short time, sales of the product increased from $34 million to $800 million.  A few years later, the drug was taken off the market as it was shown to cause irregularities to the heart.  Research completed.

The Real Cost of American Healthcare | Medicare | Preventative Care

There are well-established systems for monitoring all categories of advertising including those related to prescription and over-the-counter drugs.  A 2013 study retroactively examined advertisements for both types of drugs that had been featured on the evening news broadcasts over a three year period.  The findings are upsetting.  Almost 60% of the claims were classified as “potentially misleading.”  If that was not enough, an additional 10% were found to be clearly false or unproven.

It may be the norm in our caveat emptor-ruled world to act so callously but when life-saving or life-threatening pharmaceuticals are the focus, it should not be our responsibility to pick and choose.

The question is yours to answer: Do you benefit from prescription drug advertising?


by Thomas Ignatius Hayes


Dr. Tom Hayes is an international public health specialist who writes on health topics for ACT TWO Magazine.  He served as Director of Professional Relations for Hospital Affiliates International and as Founder and Chief Executive Officer of GreatNorthern Health Management (UK).  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and has worked in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Francophone West Africa, Gulf States, France, and the UK (where he raised his children).  He has managed major hospitals including the American Hospital of Paris and the Cromwell Hospital in London and has directed developmental projects in Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Swaziland, and Tanzania for organizations such as AfDB, World Bank, USAID and the European Commission.  He served as a medical volunteer during the Ethiopia famine and in Kosovo during the ‘99 crisis.  He spent the summer of ‘03 in Iraq with the UN as Team Leader for their Refugee Project.  Dr. Hayes lives in St Petersburg, Florida and chairs a private consulting group in International Healthcare.


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