Americans Ambivalent About DTC Ads

April 25, 2007

Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

Survey respondents say the spots make them smarter, but some would still like greater advertising restrictions.

People who watch ads on TV for prescription drugs feel smarter because of it. That's the finding of two separate studies examining reactions to this ever-controversial marketing medium.

Yet despite the support, these results also reveal a distinctly conflicted undertone. Even a decade after FDA first allowed DTC ads to be broadcast into America's living rooms, a small but significant proportion of us still wonder whether the pitches should be taken off the airwaves.

The studies come as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Prescription Drug User Fee Act. As part of that legislation, FDA has proposed a new user-fee program to fund TV ad reviews--and catch sketchy matter before it airs.

In the first survey, of 1,002 adults, 90 percent reported having seeing a drug ad on TV or in a magazine. And these spots do deliver: 28 percent of respondents said they were prompted to take action--such as talk to their doctor about the drug (71 percent) or look up the product on the Internet (61 percent).

Across the board, a majority agreed with statements such as drug ads "can help people be better informed about their health options" (72 percent) and "can make it less embarrassing to raise sensitive issues with your doctor" (62 percent).

But the group seemed almost ambivalent in their attitudes toward DTC outreach. Half of respondents described the ads as "informative and accurate," while half either found them "uninformative and inaccurate" or were unsure. While the majority--58 percent--opposed prohibitions on DTC marketing, 38 percent favored such restrictions. The Advertising Coalition, a group of trade associations representing advertisers, advertising firms, broadcasters, and magazines, sponsored the survey.

The second study--conducted by Harris Interactive for the Pharmaceutical Safety Institute--also found that people think pharma pitches are persuasive. More than 40 percent of the 1,726 respondents reported feeling more knowledgeable about new treatments, drug benefits, and even drug risks after viewing DTC ads. Fifty-one percent say that the ads prompt them to pepper their doctors with more questions.

Yet it is perhaps this trusting attitude that has critics of DTC ads up in arms, scrutinizing every scripted line. Take the new Celebrex ads. Pfizer this month reintroduced its maligned Cox-2 inhibitor to the airwaves with a two-and-a-half minute commercial featuring the tagline "understand the risks, see the benefits." Still, the mixed message wasn't enough for advocacy group Public Citizen, which immediately asked FDA to pull the ad because of how Pfizer compared the Cox-2 inhibitor to NSAIDs.