RX Ad Regs: Good For What Ails Consumer Media, But A 'Modern Physician' Fails To Heal Thyself

The federal government this week proposed sweeping changes in prescription drug ad rules that are likely to make it far easier for pharmaceutical marketers to utilize consumer print and online media, but the changes ironically may reduce the number of ad pages purchased in consumer magazines.

Meanwhile, the migration to consumer from trade advertising is wreaking havoc on B-to-B media. On Wednesday, a top magazine aimed at doctors, Modern Physician, announced plans to cease publication with its December issue. Publisher Crain Communications said the magazine would continue as a "virtual" publication with various digital media components, as well as in the form of weekly and periodic news supplements to Crain's Modern Healthcare magazine.

But the proposed new changes in drug advertising rules could further hurt both consumer and trade publications. By making it easier to utilize consumer media, the regulations would encourage more pharmaceutical marketing budgets to shift to consumer from trade media. At the same time, by relaxing the amount of disclaimer copy required in print media, the changes might also encourage drug marketers to buy fewer ad pages in consumer magazines and newspapers.

But the changes could also be a boon for TV and online media, by freeing up budgets for more TV advertising and by making it easier to utilize the Web for prescription drug advertising. Among other things, the recommendations from the Federal Trade Commission to the Food & Drug Administration, would allow Internet web sites to "be treated as direct-to-consumer advertising" unless the site is also used to sell products.

In its recommendations, the FTC said print and online media should be freed from the onerous disclaimer copy requirements that detail prescription drug side effects, because such information in consumer ads is often cryptic. Instead, it recommended that print and online media adopt the same methods as TV ads that simply make a "major statement" about side effects and direct consumers to product labeling information for more details.

"Most consumers do not read the brief summary information in print ads. Many who do read it likely do not understand it: unlike medical professionals, many consumers do not have the education, training, and background necessary to evaluate critically the highly technical language of the FDA-approved product labeling. Consumers may simply ignore a page of mouse print they do not understand," says the FTC report, which is available on its website (www.ftc.gov).

As positive a development as that might seem for consumer publications, it actually could prove a negative by requiring drug marketers to buy fewer print media ads to fulfill their ad requirements.

"The current brief summary requirement for print ads also imposes unnecessary costs on drug manufacturers who desire to advertise their products. These costs are significant because advertisers must often pay for an additional page in a print publication to meet the brief summary requirement. The additional costs imposed on print ads may have several negative effects," cites the report, which implies that those onerous copy requirements could redirect prescription ad budgets into other forms of consumer advertising, either other forms of print advertising, online ads or TV campaigns.

"The extra expense may lead advertisers to advertise less overall than they would have otherwise, depriving consumers of the information that they would otherwise have received from print ads. Many firms use both print and broadcast ads. The additional cost imposed by the current brief summary requirement for print ads - a cost not imposed on broadcast ads - may skew the choice that a manufacturer makes when choosing print or broadcast ads or the mix between the two," the commission concludes.

On the bright side, making print copy requirements easier may make the medium more affordable to some prescription drug brands that did not have the budget for disclaimer copy pages.

None of that is good news for the B-to-B marketplace, which as seen steep erosion in prescription drug ad budgets that have migrated to consumer media. The closure of the print edition of Modern Physician is indicative of that. On Wednesday, Crain said Clark Bell, publisher of Modern Physician, and his staff have been asked to stay on through the end of the year. Former Modern Physician editor Joseph Conn will join the Modern Healthcare editorial staff as Online Editor/Modern Physician.

The FTC report noted that just four years after relaxing its TV advertising rules, direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising more than tripled (see data below).

Direct-To-Consumer Drug Advertising


RX Drug Ad $ % Of RX Drug Sales
1996 $791 million 1.2%
2000 $2,467 million 2.2%

Source: Federal Trade Commission.
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