How Do You Market Pharma Where DTC is Illegal?


This post will continue our week-long theme of “Pharma Without Borders,” which inspects how Pharma companies engage with doctors and patients overseas.

By Russ Ward (@russcward)

Sometimes we forget that DTC is unusual and new in the global pharmaceutical market. But direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs is illegal everywhere in the world with two exceptions. The first is New Zealand, which legalized it in 1981, and the second is the United States, which legalized it in 1997.

Well, sort of. “Reminder” ads are legal in Canada, as are “help-seeking” ads, and have been since 2000. Basically, you can advertise the drug name, and you can advertise that there are treatment options available for a disease, but you can’t connect the dots in one ad and tell consumers that drug A is for disease B.

And both Canada and Mexico, of course, receive a lot of “spill-over” American advertising.

But, essentially, in most countries, the concept of DTC is, pun intended, foreign.

So what happens when your job is to make people aware of a drug and you’re not allowed to advertise? There are two answers to this puzzle.

The first is public relations.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about “what’s the difference between advertising and public relations? Advertising you pay for, public relations you pray for.”

In short, advertising is a prearranged sale of media space in which you can run a controlled message. Public relations is a relationship with the creators of media in which you provide them information about which they can create a news story.

Targeted, appropriate media relations can bring the condition and the treatments to your audiences through the media they are going to for news.

The second is disease-awareness education.

If your drug is a truly helpful part of the treatment for its condition, it will and should be part of an informed discussion.

You can address the healthcare professionals who work on this condition, and offer your services as both a provider and a conduit. Help them connect with expert information that can help them do their job better. And, ask them what they want the public to know, and get that done.

We’re used to thinking about shiny ads or clever taglines or arresting visuals – but sometimes, when DTC isn’t an option, the other ways may work even better.

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5 Responses to How Do You Market Pharma Where DTC is Illegal?

  1. I’ve been in pharma (gulp) 22 years now – I find it puzzling how DTC could impact sales so much, since every commercial is the same and the side effects seem much scarier than the disease. Even the radio spots all have the same sappy, dreary music – you know it is a pharma spot in 3 seconds.

    I believe the doctor should be the decision maker in prescriptions (mostly because they are aware of potential drug interactions and your particular health status) – but I do believe consumers need to participate in their own care and have a voice in the process – but since few consumers are medical or drug experts, perhaps we should trust our health care professionals to lead the discussion.

    I think DTC is probably doomed long-term and I don’t think it’s a bad thing for any of us – consumers or physicians. It may be just the catalyst to get us having real conversations with our doctors, rather than going in demanding a product we think we need.

    My 2 cents on a Thursday morning.

  2. Nat Bourre says:

    Great article. In Canada, Rx-DTC is not prohibited, but rather highly restricted. Brand name, price and quantity can be mentioned only for Schedule F Rx products, but we cannot connect it with any promotional messages, branding or the disease itself. Some well-known mega brands have been able to successfully implement DTC ads which remain within the Canadian guidelines – ie. Viagra. And brands that are clear market leaders, or truly innovative, definitely can benefit from growing the market with disease awareness campaigns. However, from a social media perspective, Canadian pharma companies have to be careful about what others can write on their sites, because the pharma company is ultimately responsible to ensure that whatever others write on their site is within the Canadian guidelines as well. And most consumers would not be aware of the restrictions. Here’s an article that explains some of what can and cannot be done on social media from a DTC and non-DTC perspective in Canada;

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