Opinion: It's All Relative - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Opinion: It's All Relative
PhRMA's new voluntary guidelines are about much more than DTC advertising—and they're not really voluntary.


Pharmaceutical Executive


While the passive-voice wording of these principles makes the overall effect more, well, passive, the main thrust of principles three and 14 are clear: less undisguised selling and more on-purpose education. It's an important first step in the campaign to reposition the industry from being assailed as hucksters to healthcare heroes.

If we are to view these guiding principles as a roadmap (as they are being promoted), then we must expect energetic battles between brand teams and their agencies, both advertising and public relations, over new ways to sell through education. Part of the answer is a shift to longer-term strategies, because educating about a disease means accepting the mantle of teacher. The teacher becomes the expert, and the expert gets the business—but not in the same truncated time frame that a hard sell produces.

Promoting health and disease awareness also means a fundamental shift in the marketing mix. Advertising is a wonderful brand builder but it's not nearly as potent a brain builder. That's traditionally been the job of public relations.

Which brings me to direct-to-consumer communications, DTCC. Direct-to-consumer communications means selling the brand as well as stimulating the brain. It means new strategies and tactics. And it means that the time is forever gone when a pharmaceutical CEO can speak about "responsible promotion" while turning a blind eye to the actual tactics being used on the air and in the doctor's office to meet aggressive quotas and keep the Street happy.

DTCC isn't just about selling. It's about saving lives and saving our healthcare system. It's about improving disease awareness and defeating non-compliance, which is estimated to cost our healthcare system billions of dollars a year in increased emergency room visits, unnecessary surgeries, expensive hospital stays, and lost productivity. Understandable and accessible information (in the form of DTCC that employs leveraged learning strategies and incorporates both brain and branded messages) also helps with our national crisis of embarrassingly low health literacy.

Successful DTCC requires a reaffirmation of responsibility, a redeployment and reassessment of resources and—the toughest "R" of all—the ability and willingness to rethink the roles of the many tools in the pharmaceutical marketing armamentarium. R3= DTCC.

Will this be difficult? You betcha. But like Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, "If it was easy, anyone could do it."

Peter J. Pitts is SVP at Manning, Selvage & Lee, and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He can be reached at


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