DTC ads should do more than raise eyebrows

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts

In a recent New York Times article “A Push to Sell Testosterone Gels Troubles Doctors,” physicians criticize direct to consumer (DTC) advertising and claim “pharmaceutical advertising promotes excessive and inappropriate drug use by convincing patients they are ill—or have a more serious condition than is genuinely the case and need medicine to treat it.” As CMI/Compas research around physician preferences was cited in the article, we felt it was particularly important to comment on this topic.

The negative feeling toward pharmaceutical advertising isn't surprising—as in any industry, an ad with no perceived value will be criticized. There have been so many conditions for which the industry has raised eyebrows:  low testosterone, restless leg syndrome, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder to name a few—that place a dark cloud around pharmaceutical consumer advertising.

The ongoing argument that DTC pharma advertising leads consumers to request medication for conditions they do not have, or conditions that do not exist, may have some truth to it.  However, the discussion and focus is really hidden in that statement. When reimagined, there has been a seismic shift in consumer behavior and it has given rise to the voice of the consumer. In 2013 and beyond, patients and caregivers have a voice in the management of their healthcare and they are talking louder than ever.

In the old health world, there was no conversation. If there was a conversation, it was in the voice of the physician and the patient was silent—accepting a diagnosis or treatment regimen prescribed by the professional. Today, a conversation exists—a dialogue between patient-physician that is active, dynamic and informed. Unlike any other time in history, a conversation is finally happening that never before could have been imagined before the birth of the Internet.

Consumers are informed by what they see online and on television from content and advertising. Consumers are actively bringing physicians information, asking about treatment options and even challenging decisions in an effort to manage their own health. Searching online across the healthcare continuum can shape an understanding for symptoms, treatment options and alternatives and even provide solutions on how to access and pay for therapies or medications.

In today's digital world, information is our arsenal—our protection, our preparation. We have 24/7 access to health information. This has given rise to the empowered patient and caregiver where they are co-pilots with the physician actively navigating the health road map together. What we are seeing is that technology allows people to own the dialogue, and advertising often offers valuable information that facilitates people taking action.

It's a pretty simple formula: information + education = participation—by being a participant in the management of a health journey, the voice of the consumer will be heard and the physician will help guide. We urge brand managers and other pharma marketers to remember an important point:  it's critical that we really need to listen to the needs of the consumer and provide value and utility. Advertising done responsibly can participate and help provide value and utility without selling. People are talking, connecting and engaging. Brands need to put people first and provide tools to better health options that may or may not sell a pill. At the end of the day, if value was gained and advertising helped inform and shape the dialogue, then I'd say that's the start of a good brand new day.

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