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Direct-to-Consumer Drug Ads Have Little Effect on Sales: Study

Industry's $5B a year marketing campaigns may provide less bang for the bucks.

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  • (SOURCE: Harvard Medical School, news release, Sept. 1, 2008)

    TUESDAY, Sept. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Drug companies that advertise directly to consumers may not be getting their money's worth, a new study contends.

    The research, published Tuesday in the online British Medical Journal, found that despite the billions that are being spent on direct-to-consumer drug marketing campaigns, the advertising is having a modest effect at best on sales.

    The only two countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to patients are the United States and New Zealand.

    As of 2005, the pharmaceutical industry was spending about $5 billion each year on direct-to-consumer campaigns. The industry based this big spending on evidence that consumer campaigns increase prescriptions.

    "People tend to think that if direct-to-consumer advertising wasn't effective, pharma wouldn't be doing it," principal investigator Stephen Soumerai, a professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a university news release. "But, as it turns out, decisions to market directly to consumers is based on scant data."

    So, a group of researchers conducted a study in Canada, where direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs is illegal.

    The English-speaking areas of Canada are regularly exposed to American media and, with it, consumer drug advertising. But residents of Quebec, of whom approximately 80 percent speak French, primarily watch French-language media and are far less exposed to this advertising. The researchers used this disparity to study the effects of direct-to-consumer drug advertising.

    Prescription rates for advertised drugs in English-speaking Canadian provinces were compared to rates in Quebec, which served as a control group.

    The researchers looked at three drugs: Enbrel (for rheumatoid arthritis), Nasonex (for nasal allergies), and Zelnorm (for irritable bowel syndrome). They tracked prescription statistics over a five-year period using data from IMS Health Canada, a health information company that receives data from about 2,700 Canadian pharmacies.

    The sales for Enbrel and Nasonex were not affected by direct-to-consumer advertising. However, sales for Zelnorm did spike by more than 40 percent in English-speaking Canada when the advertising campaign began. This spike in sales was relatively short-lived, and, after a few years, prescription rates in both groups resumed identical patterns.

    The researchers theorized that the reason direct-to-consumer advertising is not as effective in the pharmaceutical industry as it is in other industries may have to do with the complexity of drug marketing. With most products, consumers see an ad and are able to go out and purchase the product.

    "But pharmaceuticals aren't typical consumer products," Soumerai said. "A person needs to see an ad, get motivated by the ad, contact their doctor for an appointment, show up at the appointment, communicate both the condition and the drug to the doctor, convince the doctor that this drug is preferable to other alternatives, then actually go out and fill the prescription. This is a chain of events that can break at any point."

    More information

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more about prescription drug advertising.

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