Marketers Grapple With Pharmaceutical Boon

A year after the Food and Drug Administration loosened the guidelines governing pharmaceutical advertising on television, pharmaceutical companies have flocked to the airwaves with branded plus indications commercials.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising is expected to reach $1.3 billion this year, up 54 percent from $844 million last year, according to a new study by IMS Health, Plymouth Meeting, PA, that included responses from nearly 2,000 physicians and figures provided by Competitive Media Reporting.

In 1996, 81 percent of that spending was devoted to magazines, with 11.4 percent spent on television and the remainder in newspapers, radio and outdoor advertising. By the beginning of 1998, those percentages had shifted so that just over 40 percent of pharmaceutical DTC advertising spending was devoted to magazines and 50 percent to television, according to the report.

For some in the pharmaceutical marketing industry, the growth of DTC advertising and the explosion of television ads reflect an effort on the part of pharmaceutical companies to appease a growing consumer appetite.

“Patients are taking more control over their own health. Just look at the nutriceuticals [vitamin supplements] business,” said Julian Parreño, vice president of pharmaceutical/healthcare at Harte-Hanks Direct Marketing Kansas City, who works with pharmaceutical companies and advertising agencies on database construction, fulfillment and back-end response modeling. “Look at the sales of the Physician's Desk Reference and the Merck Manual. The Merck Manual is now taking out ads in magazines. That's something that would never have been done years ago. There is a move toward consumer education.”

Others caution that while consumers may hunger for information, too much advertising may desensitize them.

“With all that has happened and the expenditure in DTC, pharmaceutical companies will have to work harder,” said Ellen Miller, president of healthcare marketing services at DraftWorldwide, Chicago. “Advertisers and pharmaceutical companies will have to work to overcome the skepticism that consumers have for general advertising that they didn't always have for healthcare marketing.”

Some caution that the FDA guidelines — which allow pharmaceutical commercials to give a drug's name and describe its benefits as long as they include major side effects and outlets that consumers can turn to for more information — may inhibit interest.

“Everyone jumped into branded with indications advertising to the point where there were jokes about all the side effects mentioned on TV. I think you need drugs with clean side-effect profiles to make it with television so that the side effects don't limit the appeal of the commercial,” said Chris Novak, director of client services for the healthcare group at OgilvyOne, New York. “If something has liver damage as a side effect and you have to say liver damage on television, it won't turn everyone off but it will have a dampening effect.”

Others, doubt that consumers are affected by the warnings.

“I'm one that believes you have to give credit to the public,” Miller said. “Consumers are very well versed in the facts. They have been aware that drugs have side effects.”

While database marketing is tricky because of privacy issues, direct marketers will be pleased to know that there seems to be a consensus that the DTC growth is spurring widespread expansion of the use of databases in the industry.

“One other thing that has changed is database, database, database,” Novak said. “The use of databases is getting more sophisticated. Companies what to know who their real customers are.”

Managed care has contributed to the rise in database use by pharmaceutical companies, Parreño said.

“There is a growing trend to develop relationships directly with the customer,” he said. “Doctors are often in three or four health plans. They are seeing more patients than ever before and they have less time to spend with their patients.”

Overall, though most see the DTC growth trend continuing, some see pharmaceutical companies taking a more cautious note moving forward.

“There has been a continued rise, but it hasn't been an uninterrupted rise. A few companies tried it for a product launch and then pulled back because they wanted to try harder to assess the effects and return on investment,” Novak said. “I think there will be a continual rise because a lot of the drugs coming out now are things that would attract the interest of individual consumers — things like allergy medication, Viagra and anti-depressants. The difference is that pharmaceutical companies will be more selective, they will use DTC more responsibly.”

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