Defending DTC Pharma Advertising

The other night, after I tucked my nine-year-old son Caleb into bed and closed the door, I heard him belting out “Tresiba rea-dy” in tune with the ubiquitous TV commercial. A few days later, I was floored when he requested a prescription from his pediatrician for, you guessed it, Tresiba.

OK, it’s possible I made that last part up, but I’m thinking that the song stuck in Caleb’s head wasn’t the brand recall Novo Nordisk had in mind for that jingle. Whether it’s catchy ditties, adorable characters, or celebrity endorsements, pharma marketers have been pulling out all the stops to make their brands stand out. While these efforts are unquestionably splashy and often memorable, they don’t necessarily resonate with the right audience. 

Pharma TV commercials have also drawn scrutiny, serving as a magnet for criticism of DTC advertising from the AMA , patient advocacy groups, and Congress.



Pharma TV spend exceeded $4 billion each of the last two years, dwarfing digital and other media spend. 

Broadcasting these ads to a large general audience on TV leads to the exact issues critics point to: namely, higher drug prices to offset huge marketing costs and the mass hypochondria caused by self-diagnosis. 

Yes, there are some who will gain awareness of a condition they or a loved one may in fact be suffering from or a treatment option they should consider, but most who see these commercials will not. 

DTC ads do play an important role in fostering the doctor-patient conversation around treatment options. Utilizing these ads in a far more targeted context is the best way to counter anti-DTC sentiment.

Digital media: Splashing billions of impressions all over the Internet would be no better than the mass marketing of TV. However, both endemically aligned contextual campaigns and wider data-driven targeting offer far less wasteful options.

Search: SEM will continue to be a tried and true method. It cuts out the fat by gauging the user’s interest off the bat.

Social media: Pharma is certainly still learning how to play in this space, but various social platforms offer excellent targeting relevant to a given condition.

Point of care: There are numerous in-office opportunities to reach the right patients, particularly in specialty offices.

A side benefit of all the above is that they are immediately actionable. With digital tactics, users can click to learn more about a given treatment. For point of care, patients can discuss with their healthcare provider on the spot.

Despite mounting pressure to eliminate DTC advertising, there is too much at stake for the pharma industry and other key interests for an all-or-nothing outcome. Promotion through proper channels to an audience primed for relevant messaging will cut back on excess doctor appointments and will help reduce the burden on the healthcare system. 

While Caleb may still get that Tresiba jingle stuck in his head, at least it will be while researching the merits of basal insulin instead of in the middle of watching a Bulls game.

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