DTC Drug Advertising (2005 Jun)

by Barry A. Liebling

Should pharmaceutical companies advertise prescription drugs directly to consumers (DTC)? Many observers view the practice with suspicion. Recently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved some new drugs on the condition that the manufacturer refrain from DTC advertising for periods ranging from six months to one year. Some critics of the pharmaceutical industry have argued that DTC advertising be proscribed. Let us review some of the relevant issues. In considering my comments, be aware that I have been a paid consultant to both pharmaceutical companies and advertising agencies.

What is the purpose of a DTC prescription drug ad? It is the manufacturer’s pitch to consumers – a persuasive communication regarding the virtues of the medication being advertised. If an advertisement is designed and executed well it informs consumers what ailments the medication is supposed to help, how it is supposed to help, how it might have advantages over alternatives, and what potential liabilities the drug might have. A successful advertisement motivates consumers to investigate further, to have conversations with prescribing physicians, and to consider the appropriateness of using the medication. Certainly not all DTC ads have been done well, but excellence in DTC advertising is realizable.

Here are some of the main reasons critics object to DTC advertising. For each objection there is a response.

* Ads Are Deceptive.

Some critics claim that DTC ads are inherently deceptive. The ads, according to the critics, grossly exaggerate the benefits of the medication and ignore or understate the medication’s downsides. DTC ads give false impressions of the drug’s assets and liabilities.

It is correct to condemn deceptive advertisements. If false statements are deliberately being made a fraud is being committed, and the law should intervene. If an ad artfully avoids telling direct lies while deliberately leading intelligent viewers to false conclusions – the ad should be condemned as essentially dishonest.

But the problems of fraudulent advertising are not special to pharmaceutical products. Deceitful advertising might be found in any product category. The answer to the critic is that fraud should not be tolerated in DTC ads – or any ads. Honest DTC ads are, however, a good source of information.

* Consumers Make Poor Judgements.

Even if ads are honest, a number of observers have noted that consumers frequently make poor judgements – overestimating the benefits of a drug and discounting its dangers. These observers have complained that DTC ads are shown to consumers who are not well equipped to evaluate the material, and these consumers often draw erroneous conclusions.

Of course, consumers as well as physicians, vary widely with respect to their competence at interpreting arguments. The best thing to do is to make accurate information available. This does not guarantee sound judgments, but the alternative – withholding information – surely is worse. With honest DTC advertising consumers have something to go on. Good ads provide relevant data to consider and are useful in making intelligent decisions.

* Ads Affect The Consumer-Physician Relationship.

Occasionally a commentator will lament that DTC ads have a deleterious effect on the relationship consumers have with physicians. Before DTC advertising it was difficult for consumers to learn about prescription medications on their own. They were urged to leave the task of evaluating drugs to physicians and to trust their physician’s judgements. When DTC ads became popular consumers had an additional source of information. This encouraged them to question physicians and make suggestions about their own treatments.

While physicians have varying attitudes about consumers discussing the merits of particular drugs, the best physicians welcome these conversations. The ultimate responsibility for deciding to take or not to take a prescription medication rests on the consumer. Physicians are experts, but they are fallible and often disagree with one another. This is why sometimes it is wise to go “for a second opinion.” Consumers should listen to their physician’s advice and evaluate it on its merits. DTC ads can help consumers evaluate better.

* Ads Create Demand For Unnecessary Drugs.

Some critics have charged that even honest, informative DTC ads are inappropriate because when they are effective they “create demand for unnecessary drugs.” This comment reveals a core hostility toward advertising, and free enterprise, in general. The underlying attitude is that the critic knows what drugs are “really necessary” and the pharmaceutical company should not be permitted to defy the critic’s preferences.

The answer to those who would decide for others what is “really necessary” is that it is end-users – consumers and physicians – and pharmaceutical companies that are in the best position to determine the success of prescription medications. While some errors are inevitable, a free market is the surest path to getting things right. Consumers should be free to examine OTC ads and judge for themselves.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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