Big Pharma Looks To Fill New Media Script As Feds Crack Down On TV Ads

After eight years of direct-to-consumer television advertising has made pharmaceuticals one of the largest advertising categories, the continuing controversy over such ads is causing marketers and industry observers to search for marketing reforms as the specter of greater federal oversight looms.

Last week, Eli Lilly and Co. was admonished by the Food and Drug Administration for a Foote Cone & Belding-created TV spot that the federal agency considered "misleading." Meanwhile, Bristol-Myers Squibb said it had imposed a ban on advertising its new drugs to consumers in their first year after FDA approval. The company noted that its voluntary action goes farther than what is expected to be recommended by a forthcoming industry-wide advertising code.

The Lilly TV ad singled out by the FDA was for its attention deficit hyperactivity disorder treatment, Strattera. In the ad created by the Interpublic Group shop, a forgetful man misplaces keys, and is late for an important office meeting. FCB said that the ad had already ended its TV run, but the agency and Lilly said through representatives that they both stand by the ad, which is titled "Videogame." Nevertheless, representatives said both companies are complying with the FDA, and have until next week to formally respond to the charge.

Over the past few months, the FDA has markedly stepped up its enforcement vis a vis charges of false advertising by big pharma, noted Peter Pitts, senior vice president for health affairs at Manning, Selvage & Lee and a senior fellow for health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

"Enforcement tends to come in ebbs and flows, and the FDA has been looking more assiduously at pharmaceutical DTC advertisements," Pitts said. A few months ago, amid a sweeping set of warnings to consumers about popular drugs, Merck and Pfizer were forced to pull their respective painkillers, Vioxx and Bextra--as was AstraZeneca, whose cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor was linked to severe side effects such as weakened muscles. The companies had already spent more than half a billion dollars in media on the drugs, collectively.

At the time, a report from Manhattan Research, a health care market researcher, suggested that pharmaceutical companies have been relying too heavily on television for direct-to-consumer advertising, and advised shifting more ad dollars to online. The report reasons that such a shift, as part of an integrated DTC advertising strategy, would be well-positioned to increase overall product awareness--and would be "more likely to engage empowered health consumers who take action."

In order to clean up its tarnished image, big pharma will have to drastically rethink its marketing efforts, said Pitts, although efforts such as Bristol's may go too far in the other direction.

"There has been a lot of talk concerning companies going beyond what these ads should do," Pitts said. "The creative executions are more often directed towards marketing as opposed to education and awareness. I hope there's concern on the part of drug makers because DTC advertising is the face of the industry and the industry is being viewed by the general public as being in the business of selling drugs rather than being in the business of discovering and making drugs. Until the advertising shifts into more of a hybrid of selling and education, that reputation is not going to get any better. Advertising is what people see and what people react to and what will assist the industry in changing its image."

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