Infomercials Give Prescription Drug Advertisers The Time To Address Regulatory Issues and Provide More In-Depth Information
Ask people what their opinion is of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical drug television advertising and you’re likely to hear some not-to-kind comments. Among the comments that have come up in my recent conversations are these:
“There are so many ads out there for so many prescription medicines I can’t tell one from the other”
“Are there really that many people out there who suffer from some of these maladies?”
“If these pharmaceutical companies spend less money on TV advertising, then maybe they could lower the cost of their drugs”
“Admittedly, it would be unscientific to extrapolate a “finding” from these random comments about advertising, but it seems fair to say that the topic of DTC advertising will bring out negative responses. Advertising—no matter how well it is crafted and produced—will never fail to produce some complaint about its approach, intent, or results,” according to Dan Zifkin, president of Evanston, Il- based Zephyr Media Group. “That notwithstanding,” he adds, “the negative perception of what the barrage of DTC advertising on television has done may outweigh the reality of how effective this advertising has been, and fails to fully credit how effective this advertising has been to patients/consumers in our information-seeking society. There are some reasons why pharmaceutical advertising as it’s presently rendered on television is not resonating with the public as well as it could and should.”
The formula for pharmaceutical advertising has become almost modular, notes Zifkin. A typical one- minute lifestyle ad demonstrates the problem/affliction, the consumer and/or a medical professional outlines the product benefits and reviews the potential side effects, and the end user then resumes activity that usually showcases how the pharma product in question contributed to this “normalcy.” The viewer is given a website and/or toll free telephone number to dial to get more information, and is told to ask her/his physician.
There’s no question that the approach is solid, adheres to advertising tenets of demonstrating a problem/providing a solution, and produces a fairly believable “happily ever after” result. And it apparently works. Pharmaceutical advertising on TV has skyrocketed since regulatory restrictions on them were eased. Since 1999, reported direct-to-consumer drug advertising spending has increased a whopping 259%: from $1.8 billion in 1999 to $5.5 billion in 2006, with much of it spent on network television.
Clearly, television advertising for prescription medications has not only improved consumer awareness, but has built powerful brands. “Would Lunesta, Viagra, Nexium and others of similar branding success have ever achieved that level of familiarity—and public trust—were it not for the power of these seemingly formulaic television ads?,” Zifkin asks. Almost certainly not.
Problems with DTC’s perception
But the pharma industry is discovering and experiencing “side effects” of its own with these massive expenditures on television. Two problems loom: the decrease in advertising impact from all this advertising, and the concern among some experts and pressure groups about the effect on DTC advertising has on consumers. Both are troublesome.
The exponential increase in the sheer number of prescription drug ads on television has its downside. One of the maladies that marketers in major advertising spending categories endure is clutter—both in general with all advertising, as well as within select product categories. In the automotive/vehicle category, as an example, the frequency of ads is overwhelming. In local station breaks or in local newscasts, one would be hard-pressed to find a commercial break that doesn’t contain one or more ads for local car dealers or dealer associations. In conventional network or cable network TV breaks, many of the more popular shows have at least one ad from a major vehicle manufacturer in each “pod.” When coupled with the TV viewer’s ability to change channels with the flick of a finger at commercial break times, a benchmark measure of advertising effectiveness—viewer recall of specific messages or even advertiser names—has slipped significantly over the years. Between the explosive growth of television channels, the increase in commercial time on TV networks and stations, and the sheer amount of advertising frequency in some high-profile marketing categories it’s no wonder today’s viewer can’t remember one ad from the other.
The bad news in pharmaceutical advertising is that “clutter disease” is spreading into the category. If you channel-flip through the major broadcast network nightly evening newscasts—an important program type for pharmaceutical advertisers -- and make note of the advertising, it will be virtually impossible to find a commercial break on any of network newscast that does not contain at least one pharmaceutical ad—and that’s not counting over-the-counter pain and other remedies. While the situation with pharma products is somewhat different that with automobiles, the problem becomes somewhat the same. All that DTC advertising begins to become a big blur in the minds of the consumer.
The second looming issue is the regulatory one. Over the past year, there has been increasing concern by both industry critics and—to some extent—the FDA to take a deeper look at the effects that this deluge of DTC advertising has on the public. The new Congress has been more concerned with drug safety and the price of medications, but don’t be surprised if the legislative review process extends into marketing practices over the next year.
Multiple uses of television for DTC
So does this mean that television advertising in the pharma category is in serious trouble? Probably not. TV is a powerful medium despite the clutter problem. And regulators surely will not impose anything as harsh as a ban on DTC advertising—there’s simply too much benefit in how these messages educate and inform consumers.
But can television be used in other ways that can help break through the bombardment of messages, as well as work to pacify regulatory bodies seeking to insure that information is disseminated correctly? Zifkin suggests that the solution is turning to long-form advertising such as the television infomercial: a non-clutter environment.
Long known as the bastion of consumer household items, fitness products, and personal well-being solutions, the half hour infomercial is really the forerunner of today’s one minute drug ad, but with more time for information and no clutter. “Those of us in the infomercial business can easily recite a laundry list of benefits that an infomercial provides an advertiser. Rather than get into an extensive list that includes advantages that are more germane to products or services not marketed similarly to prescription drug products, mentioning just a few where infomercials really can make a difference in pharma advertising can provide some real insights into the advantage of an infomercial. And in looking at these two issues in DTC advertising today—the increased call for better, fuller disclosure of drug product information and the barrage of product advertising—the TV infomercial can address both concerns.” Notes Zifkin.
First, there are major product information disclosure benefits that the half hour infomercial provides. In the current drug regulatory environment, the legal requirements on the disclosure of potential side effects creates this rather perplexing TV message situation wherein the downside of taking many prescribed products seemingly outweighs the logical benefits. Rather than creating an ad that attempts to deliver valuable, credible information to consumers while “stuffing” in what sounds like a lengthy list of drawbacks (“if these symptoms occur, see your doctor”), the infomercial can help sort that out. A well-crafted infomercial that featured medical professionals that included a segment that actually explained the potential side effect issue in expanded terms—maybe including some idea of how infrequent such problems were—might actually give the viewer what she or he actually was looking for: intelligent, digestible information that would make the decision to ask one’s physician about the drug in question much easier.
And wouldn’t the regulatory agencies as well as the critics welcome an infomercial’s time being spent on that issue? If you add in all the other in-depth discussion on what the product can do that IS beneficial, then an infomercial could produce viewer reaction’s like “oh, now I get it!” Might that not stimulate better patient/doctor discussion on the drug in question at that next office visit? And isn’t that a good thing?
As for the drug advertising clutter issue, that’s a fairly straightforward situation. A stand-alone, half-hour infomercial doesn’t have to compete with either news or entertainment program content or with other drug messages. Those other pharmaceutical ads—even if for totally unrelated products—do create an often-dizzying number of commercials that befuddle the viewer with information. And sometimes that information only gets partially absorbed, if at all.
Infomercials: viewers opt in to format
“There’s one other attribute that an infomercial provides that bears particular mention. No one is going to read a book that doesn’t interest them, listen to music they dislike, or watch a TV program that doesn’t appeal to their tastes. Television viewers who watch infomercials do so because they choose to! Just like with a newscast or a documentary, a DTC infomercial viewer would be watching as an active recipient of the information being offered and dispensed in the show,” suggests Zifkin.
And just as viewers of hard goods and services infomercials do when they pick up the phone or log onto the Internet to buy that advertised product, a prescription drug infomercial viewer will make that physician’s appointment well-armed with solid, in-depth relevant information. And that information will not be sketchy facts culled from far-too-brief short length commercials that simply can’t get the total story across.
Let there be no mistake: DTC advertising on television has done a tremendous amount of good. In just a handful of years, it has blossomed into a major media advertising category, has given the public much more information about the value of prescription medicine than ever before, has introduced many to the wonders of today’s drugs, and has lessened the reticence of patients to discuss health issues with their physician. They do ask their doctor.
But there’s a diminishing return on that advertising investment in today’s cluttered environment. These concerns cause consternation among those who fear that information instead becomes misinformation. These concerns show up also—in their own way—in the anecdotal comments at the beginning of this article. The growing concern is that prescription drug advertising is not being as effective as it could be.
Companies like Pfizer, Wyeth, Schering-Plough, Lilly and others have dabbled with infomercials, but the investment-to-date in them pales in comparison to other DTC ad spending. None have made a serious commitment to them, perhaps in part due to the simplicity and easy-to-emulate formulae that one-minute TV commercials have offered. As those benefits begin to lessen, infomercials loom as the next really smart way to provide the kind of information that consumers—and regulators—need and demand,” concludes Zifkin.
Zephyr Media Group, headquartered in Evanston, Illinois, is a leader in the direct response marketing and infomercial media business, with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, OR, and Chicago. Zephyr provides full services, including concept development, media buying, production, fulfillment and telemarketing.