Twenty years of DTC advertising has not seemed to be enough time to gain acceptance by physicians, consumer advocates, and politicians. In fact the anti-DTC sentiment seems to be reaching a frenzy this election cycle. I have discussed before why this is happening. In brief, it is because of the false assumptions that DTC raises drug prices, creates demand for over treatment, sets false expectations of efficacy, wastes physician time discussing drug requests, and discourages non drug alternatives.
The drug industry has largely failed to change attitudes among consumers about its image. Surveys show a lot of anti-drug company sentiment and a feeling that there is a problem in drug advertising. Despite the anti-drug company sentiment, consumers seem to rely on drug advertising for their awareness of new treatments. There is no doubt for most brands DTC is a successful investment.
The reason drug companies have PR problems is because of the fundamental issue that Americans do pay more for branded drugs than Canadians and Europeans. American prices fund drug company research budgets. It is hard to explain to Americans that they subsidize drug development for other developed countries. It is difficult to get politicians to stop bashing drug companies even though most are smart enough to recognize what would happen if the United States imposed price controls. Research would decline and government would not pick up the slack. Politicians on the left take the easy route and use prices as a campaign issue.
This PR nightmare is here to stay and drug companies are battling DTC critics as best they can. Mostly they are using tremendous lobbying clout to prevent price controls, tax penalties for DTC, and punitive patent policy.The media and advertising agency trade groups are also fighting any DTC restrictions through intense lobbying.
My recommendation for DTC marketers is to unapologetically market your products through advertising. I am convinced that DTC works because consumers learn important news through DTC and in many cases follow up with their doctors. Consumers may say they have issues with drug ads, but they act on them anyway. DTC is just the start of a consumer initiated process, and there are many opportunities to learn of alternatives to advertised drugs.
The best thing drug companies can do to blunt criticism is to make truly added value solutions that cure or control disease. Ask a Hep C sufferer if Harvoni is a miracle drug. Ask the people with HIV who now live a relatively normal life if drug companies changed their lives. Those drugs would not likely be here without the strong profit motive. DTC is not perfect and does lead to some issues for payers and doctors. On balance, DTC is a net positive and although Hilary and Bernie will disagree, DTC marketers should be proud of what they do.
I expect 2016 to be a strong year for DTC spending and could top $5 billion again. There are numerous media opportunities to improve DTC effectiveness and efficiency across mass and targeted media. These opportunities are in creating better ads and in optimizing media selection. Technology has created opportunities to do deep dives in how consumers digest DTC ads. All DTC advertisers have opportunities to get better ROI if they use the many tools suppliers have developed.
While we have gotten good at creating the basic DTC ad, can we say they are the best we can do? DTC is 20 years old but health care is changing so fast that the learning curve on what motivates consumers is still at its infancy. That makes being a consumer marketer of health products an exciting place to be despite the criticisms.