Oops, the Ads Worked.
No, I'm not talking about advertising for tobacco products. This case involves direct-to-consumer ads for prescription drugs.
(These are the ones with scenes of smiling people, interrupted with a disclaimer that goes something like, "Side effects are minor and may include headache, bleeding through the pores and loss of all motor functions.")
In August 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxed the restrictions on DTC advertising through broadcast media. In 1999, the FDA reaffirmed the new policy and announced it would again review DTC advertising policy in 2001.
Now some physicians are complaining. At a recent American Medical Association meeting, one group of doctors complained that patients frequently come into their offices asking about -- if not demanding -- specific advertised prescription drugs. These doctors say the ads make it more difficult for them to recommend generic equivalents, different medications or no medication at all. Many physicians are asking for a return to the pre-1997 restrictions on advertising prescription drugs via television.
These DTC drug ads must be pretty effective if physicians--who are nothing if not authority figures -- are worried about a loss of influence over patient decisions.
By the way, if you worry that the high cost of DTC advertising leads to higher prices for prescription drugs, then you'll be happy to know there's no evidence of that happening. John Calfee, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, gave some interesting testimony in July before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce and Tourism. Calfee cited market data from the statin class of cholesterol-reducing drugs (examples include Zocor and Lipitor). This class of drugs is both one of the most popular in terms of sales and also, one of the leaders in DTC advertising. However, despite substantial expenditures on TV and print ads, statin drug prices have been flat or slightly declining. The pattern is similar for other classes of drugs.
So what is it about these DTC ads that could make them so effective? I believe there are several factors. First, there are many consumers who really care about these prescription drugs. Consumers with health-threatening conditions are intensely interested in treatments -- that means they're in an active search for information, part of which could come from advertising. Second, the information available to consumers is fairly limited and difficult to evaluate (not that there is a lack of data, but there is lack of information that's accessible and understandable for most consumers). Advertising helps fill the void. Finally, these DTC ads seem to properly focus on the health benefit to the consumer; they don't, for example, talk about the manufacturer. I mean, do you really care whether a medication that works for you is made by Pfizer or Merck? Well-written ads speak in the language of-the, consumer and focus on the brand's benefit to him or her.
I think there are some lessons here for marketers in all fields
* Advertising can indeed be a powerful source of influence, even for products or services that, like prescription drugs, are relatively complex, expensive and/or difficult to buy. If your advertising doesn't seem to be nearly this effective, you might want to reexamine your message.
* Understand how members of your target market make purchase decisions for your type of product. What sources of information do they use? In the case of DTC drug advertising; the pharmaceutical companies recognized that consumers increasingly want more influence over their healthcare decisions.
* Focus on the benefit(s) your product or service offers your customers -- and don't waver. The advertising message shouldn't be about you, how great you believe your company is, how long you've been in business or anything else that doesn't really matter to the consumer. If you're not sure what matters most to consumers and their purchase decisions, then it's time to find out.
Jim Karrh, Ph.D., is assistant professor of marketing and advertising in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's College of Business Administration as well as a marketing consultant. E-mail him at email@example.com.