DTC: Death to Commercials

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By Guy Mastrion (@gmastrion)

I’m going to speak heresy as an advertising creative director, specifically one working in healthcare. I’m coming to the belief that the FDA should put an end to branded TV commercials for pharma products.

Why?

Because I believe we’ve all been lulled into a healthcare coma by unimaginative, often nonsensical commercials attempting to communicate a range of product benefits in subtle and not so subtle ways. Things that can be said and others that are not allowed to be spoken, but may be inferred if the imagery implies with just the right tip of the hat.

We’ve been lulled into the complacence of not taking an active role in staying healthy. The onslaught of offers to fix whatever nature or circumstance have heaped upon our mortal selves is staggering. We’re immune to often-severe fair balance claims, simply because they’ve lost their bite after so much exposure. We willingly stride, or hobble, into our doctor’s office and request a product that may in fact result in our death and may not be the solution to our problem, if there is a problem at all.

Does DTC advertising promote physical and emotional dependency on the healthcare industry? When I get home from work at night and my kids are singing TV jingles for pharma products and can tell me “there’s a pill for that” I begin to worry. We are creating legions of future patients who will forever look outward for solutions to their health problems instead of looking in the mirror.

Sure, the truth is that not all ill health is self-inflicted, but some of our larger cultural health issues are amplified through the proffering of junk food – which exacerbates the proliferation of diabetes and high cholesterol – then the next spot after the pitch for “fatty burger and fries and sugar water with bubbles” is for a diabetes med or a cholesterol-lowering agent. In a nice business model, one industry works on poisoning us and the other works on correcting the problem. And TV media just keep ringing the cash registers. They make millions, we get sick.

Our food supply is a serious problem that needs to be sorted out. I’m not meaning to demonize the pharma industry any more than the food industry or TV media. All of us are learning and realizing things about our food supply, our medicines and the influence of TV – not all of it is good. As parents and as adults in general, we have some control over what food goes into our mouths, and with a little work and effort we can get a solid understanding of what good healthy food is, and we can shut off the TV. It’s not as easy to figure out what’s needed with our health and the products and services designed to fix us. We rely on our healthcare professionals and, yes, increasingly we need to rely on ourselves to be our own advocates and patient educators, but still, most of us are not doctors.

Do we really need TV commercials pitching drugs at us?

Here’s my suggestion: Use the power of TV to promote healthy living sponsored by pharma companies and healthcare industry providers. I’m talking corp-level promotion that will make these firms household names, in the name of good health. This effort will provide a broad and valuable halo effect for these manufacturers. These spots can cover a range of disease states and drive those seeking more information to a Web page or app or digital whatever, where they can then navigate to specific product info. And as they go deeper into an educational environment, it will set them straight on the facts of good health, and what is normal, before they are educated on any specific meds. This is good-old-fashioned brand building, trust building I like to call it. The current model is a sales model, not designed to build trust as much as drive a highly coordinated sales effort. We need to trust our healthcare system again.

The healthcare industry did not invent TV advertising, but once they were entitled to use it, they learned just how much leverage it can provide in the sales of drugs. It ushered in the age of the blockbuster and created a feeding frenzy for the revenue, shareholder value, and development dollars it can push back into the labs of new drug development. But as this ecosystem matured and the patent extension game became a key strategy to protect revenue, not necessarily advance medicine, DTC advertising became an end game in itself, in some cases propping up revenue in organizations otherwise nearly devoid of the income needed to support whats now a huge marketing-driven organization.

My suggested approach will free TV advertising from the constraints of regulatory guidelines on promotion, as they will be dealing solely in good health and disease awareness. It will free up resources at the FDA to deal with other pressing issues, like how rotten our food chain is. It will also educate our nation and our children on good health – what to do and what to avoid in order to stay healthy. And when we really need it, how to talk effectively with a healthcare expert because we’ll be well educated through a thoughtful and easily accessible information base enabled through the immersive environment of digital media.

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4 Responses to DTC: Death to Commercials

  1. I am the first to say that DTC marketers rely way too much on TV but TV does have a place in DTC marketing. It’s great for driving awareness of new drugs/treatments but the reality is that once that awareness level has been achieved the continued use of TV provides a smaller and smaller ROI. Marketers need to have quantitative goals for TV ads (like awareness within target audience) and think more about how to get individuals to convert because mass market TV is not going to cut it anymore

  2. Christine says:

    Great post. I agree wholeheartedly with you…

    Personally, I am very happy that most countries do not allow DTC advertising of prescription drugs…

    Here’s a Pfizer ad in Canada (no DTC) that I think you might like because it speaks to the points you raise in your post…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXGMlDwtP_Q&feature=player_embedded#!

    (hope the link works… if not, search YouTube with keywords “Pfizer” and “breathe”)

    It’s one of the first industry TV ads that has really caught my attention recently because of it’s non-promotional aspect (with respect to a specific drug brand) and it left me with a positive feeling about Pfizer.

  3. admin says:

    I want to thank both Richard Meyer and Christine for their comments.
    As a marketer who has executed a number of DTC campaigns I agree it can play a very effective role in driving ROI and to your point it does offer diminishing returns and efforts need to be adjusted accordingly. My concern though is not its efficacy, if you will, but its side effects. The TV spot from Pfizer in Canada that Christine has shared is an excellent example of the approach I’m suggesting. It certainly does nothing to push a product specific message but it does a marvelous job of promoting good health and good will about Pfizer. I’m proposing we look at ROI through a new set of lenses. That we consider the “return” on our investment a country not programmed to consider medicine as a commercial enterprise akin to fast food via the proffering of seemingly quick fix remedies to symptoms of many and much larger social, cultural and economic issues.

    I thank you both once again for contributing your voice to my post.

  4. Gary Ashwal says:

    I love that “breathe ad”

    Thinking about other TV alternatives to DTC, I attended a great presentation recently by Dr. Joe Sachs (Writer and Producer of TV’s “ER”; also a real ER physician). He had great examples of the positive health influence of information embedded into plotlines of popular television. Even 10-second lines of script can change knowledge and behavior.

    I bet pharma brands would also love to have some kind of in-story brand placement related to “good health”. Maybe that’s another DTC alternative that help promote unbranded educational sites, or just positive brand halo stuff, etc. Of course, I am not a TV writer and, as Joe Sachs said, it has to be “character driven”