I'm a gonna tell you how it's gonna be…” screamed rock musician Jack White outside his music trailer, at the start of an “impromptu” one-man show at last month's all-conquering SXSW festival in Austin, TX. Although White was launching into a parking-lot rendition of Buddy Holly's classic “Not Fade Away,” he might just as easily have been describing the concept behind mass-audience marketing; known, of course, in our industry as direct-to-consumer advertising. Direct to consumer? To? Do we still really call it by this name? We're going to talk to you. We're gonna tell you how it's gonna be!
Since 1997, there has been much debate about the whys, wherefores and whatevernexts of marketing prescription products directly “to” the public. For a while, the debate centered on the ethics of promoting drug brands to consumers who were surely unqualified to make clinical evaluations and choose their own medications. Proponents argued that such campaigns were raising awareness of certain conditions and persuading the public to seek treatment. Opponents countered with the notion that diagnosing disease and prescribing drugs is the doc's domain.
And now, 14 years on, we are discussing the possible death of DTC altogether. But the forces currently wearing down consumer advertising are markedly different from the ones we originally deployed, deplored, defended and debated at the end of the last millennium.
For starters, technological advances have changed the rules of communication. Web 2.0 turned monologue into dialogue. As a marketer, you can no longer talk to people like me. We can have conversations but you can no longer tell me how it's gonna be.
But there are far greater challenges to the longevity of DTC than digital innovation and changing consumer behavior.
DTC has developed a drug problem, and on two fronts. First, many of DTC's big-ticket TV blockbusters, like Pfizer's Lipitor, are looking over the edge of the patent cliff. As Matthew Arnold notes in “Code Red For DTC?” (pages 34-37), the $272 million Pfizer spent on Lipitor DTC in 2010 outweighs the $191 million deficit in pharma's total DTC spend versus the previous year. But the $272 million gorilla won't be in the living room much longer. And over the next few years, millions of dollars worth of DTC brands will follow suit.
Second, the vast majority of the products coming through the pipeline are not particularly conducive to the mass-market advertising treatments of the past decade. The blockbuster model has been consigned to pharmaceutical history.
But just hold on a minute, say DTC supporters. “The economics of many biologics and the size of the potential audiences still allow for the effective use of TV and print,” says Healogix CEO Harris Kaplan. And while it's unlikely that we'll ever see orphan drugs advertised on the tube, he believes there are still enough untreated patients in numerous disease categories for the industry to want to reach through TV. The reason might be that TV buys are becoming smaller (read also: cheaper) and better targeted, while online initiatives are becoming more complex and expensive.
Plus, people are still watching TV, aren't they? “They're multitasking, but they're still viewing,” says Liz O'Neil, VP, director of channel marketing at Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide. “The internet didn't kill TV. Besides, no one's searching for information about a drug they haven't heard of.”