Public Relations: Why Advocacy Beats DTC

The battle for market share should be waged in doctors' offices.
Oct 01, 2004

Josh Weinstein
There is no way to avoid it. DTC advertising is in your face, every minute, plastered onto anything that conceivably can carry a promotional message. Such DTC promotions result in excesses in spending, awareness overkill, mistargeted messages, and an overall negative image for our industry. In contrast, as a veteran pharma marketer, I have witnessed that the most direct and efficient tool for driving long-term support for brands has been, and continues to be, a well-designed, advocacy-based public education program.

Enough Already Until recently, the ubiquitous Claritin (loratadine) campaign was the poster child for awareness overkill. You couldn't open a pharmacy bag, watch TV , or grab an airline luggage tag without seeing that brand name. For a while, it seemed that the company's marketing plan demanded that a dozen new brandable vehicles be added to the promotion mix each year.

Food and Family
The latest sensory offensive is the pride and joy of the three "male function" promoters slugging it out in spending matches. We already had plenty of over-the-top and "more than you ever want to hear" ad messages for Viagra (sildenafil) when it was alone in the marketplace. Now the drug's two new competitors each feel compelled to match that high spending to get their messages heard above Viagra's noise. The result is that consumers are force-fed "erection wars" messages at three times what was already an excessive level. What's more, the offensiveness of these ad messages to families with children adds plenty to the nation's growing anti-pharma sentiments. I understand that millions of dollars spent on DTC ads may increase patient requests for the product in the short term. But exercises of this type do little to dissuade consumers from the belief that pharma companies have more money than they know what to do with—and those ads are not good for brands, or the industry, in the long run.

To make matters worse, DTC promotion regulations obligate advertisers to frighten the public with laundry lists of side effects—witness the attractive prospect of "explosive diarrhea" that one anti-obesity product loudly announced to the disgust and laughter of millions of consumers. Although Prevention surveys show that consumers want to know about medication side effects, DTC ads don't convey that information in a meaningful way. The ads give each adverse event equal weight no matter the prevalence or the likelihood of it occurring. Rather, companies should place their dollars into disease education and public awareness campaigns so patients can self-identify and go to their physicians, who can then help them properly understand a drug's benefits and warnings.

Nearly half the people taking medicine for their high blood pressure still have numbers that are too high.
Responsible Alternative On the other hand, working with advocacy groups is one of the most accomplished means of raising disease awareness and enhancing the industry's image as deliverer of new and tangible value to patients. Often this advocacy work is unbranded, stimulating consumers to ask doctors about their symptoms. Then, companies can compete by promoting their brands to physicians.

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