Pharma’s Nine Words

May 11th, 2017 by Tom Lynch

Any idea what the nine most frequently spoken words on US television are? How about:

My doctor said…

Tell your doctor…

Ask your doctor…

These words come at the beginning, “My doctor said,” the middle, “Tell your doctor,” and the end, “Ask your doctor,” of Direct To Consumer (DTC) television advertising with which Big Pharma bombards Americans every day. This is especially true during the morning network shows between 7:00 and 9:00 AM, the evening news hours and the occasionally funny prime time sitcoms that follow. The ads also feature a swell story with great looking actors and sweet music that plays as someone doing a voiceover tells us all about the 25, or so, ways the drug being pushed can kill us.

DTC ads come in many forms, but in 2015  69% of them were television ads with about a third of those coming from Pfizer. These ads have been allowed since the mid-1980s, but gained momentum in 1997 when the FDA relaxed the rules regarding television. Since then, it’s been Katy bar the door.

According to Pharmacy and Therapeutics (P&T), a peer reviewed journal for managed care and hospital formulary management:

The average American television viewer watches as many as nine drug ads a day, totaling 16 hours per year, which far exceeds the amount of time the average individual spends with a primary care physician.5,23,27

Since beginning the recovery from the Great Recession, television DTC has seen staggering growth:



According to Kantar Media, 72% of the commercial breaks in the CBS Evening News now have at least one pharmaceutical ad in them. These ads have a specific demographic target: Baby Boomers. Until 2012, they were mainly aimed at conditions such as dry eyes, erectile dysfunction, smoking cessation, chronic pain, constipation, heartburn, allergies and cholesterol. But in the last five years, they’ve made a deep dive into cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and other illnesses to seniors. And, a reflection of our time, Opioid Induced Constipation hit the field during the 2015 Super Bowl. I can still hear the collective national gasp from that one.

Kantar Media reports Pharma spent $6.4 billion on DTC in 2016, with television garnering more than two-thirds of the spend. Since 2012, television spending is up 62%. During that time, the number of drug companies annually spending more than $50 million and the number spending more than $100 million has doubled. For example, last year, makers of Viagra and Cialis spent a combined $306 million convincing older (and increasingly younger) men that without those magic little pills their once prodigious sexual prowess, rapidly approaching Wooly Mammoth-like extinction, will never rise again, literally (but watch out for that 4-hour thing).

And when a new drug hits the market, first year spending can be breathtaking. Consider Opdivo, which debuted in 2015. The drug treats a certain kind of end-stage lung cancer (non-small cell lung cancer), which has a US patient population of less than 200,000. Yet Bristol-Myers Squibb, Opdivo’s maker, spent $93 million marketing it in its first year.

All this money begs an obvious question: Does it work? Well, even Pharma’s not sure, saying ROI is only one measure of a brand’s marketing success. Who is sure? The American Medical Association, which, in 2015, saying it was a colossal waste of money, called for an “outright ban” on Direct To Consumer advertising. The AMA also said doctors felt pressured by vulnerable patients who were looking for relief from one thing or another and that older drugs often work just as well, or even better, than the newer high-priced brands. Of course, it is preposterous to think we’ll ever return to to good old days of the 1980s before DTC advertising became more than a gleam in a marketer’s eye. The drug lobby is nearly omnipotent and there is the  little matter of commercial free speech. Moreover, drug makers claim they are providing valuable information with which consumers can make informed choices. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, “DTC is used to drive choice, not to inform it.”

America is one of only two countries in the world that allow Direct To Consumer drug advertising, the other being New Zealand, a country with a population of less than 4 million. The medical community doesn’t like it there, either.

Pharma has long had a wish to bring DTC to the European Union. That’s not going to be happening, however, as last year 22 of the 27 members rejected the idea.

The P&T white paper, mentioned above is presents an excellent analysis of DTC advertising, and has a nifty for-and-against page regarding DTC advertising. They’re both worth a look.