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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Television DTC Ads from Pharma

I agree with the AMA's proposed Ban on DTC Ads of Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices. To me the logic of the ban is that the only other country in the world that allows direct-to-consumer drug ads is New Zealand. My goal in this blog is not to repeat the various pros and cons cited for DTC ads [per Ventola C Lee. Direct-to-Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising. P T. 2011;36(10):669-684.] Although, for the record my interpretation is that the cons far outweigh any perceived pros.

But my goal here is to shed light on how these ads work and what makes DTC pharma ads effective advertising. I selected what are considered the best DTC pharma ads per Rand Marketing (Mar 27, 2016).

Zoloft - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twhvtzd6gXA
The ad highlights the feature of the product to correct a chemical imbalance in the brain that leads to depression in the target market of individuals with sadness. The apparent value proposition is the ability to relieve sadness. It engages the user via "cuteness" that is taking a fairly depressing (sorry) topic and making it seem kid like and cute - and potentially beatable. The ad's call to action is primarily to talk to one's doctor about Zoloft (not depression). They also highlight an ad in a magazine (Shape) and a phone number to call. Taking this action is expected to yield benefit to the viewer in terms of relieving depression.

The ad is highlighted as one of the most effective DTC ads ever. I feel the objective was measurable since data related to prescriptions is readily available and the company could measure changes in prescriptions in the markets where the ad was shown. I also feel the effect of ad was quite attainable at the time it was aired. It provided a clear call to action and doctors were likely to follow up by prescribing the drug that the patient requested. At the time there were only 2 SSRIs, and sertraline (Zoloft) had a better profile than fluoxetine (Prozac). Plus depression as a medical condition was relatively unknown yet had been introduced already by the success of fluoxetine (Prozac).

AstraZeneca- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNeB-Fw1-4g&feature=youtu.be
The ad highlights a brand that cares about healthy eating to a target market of people who eat sugar and unhealthy food. The apparent value proposition is that this company can give you advice on how to lower triglycerides and eat more healthy food. It engages the user via pictures of appetizing food (bacon sizzling), people gorging on food, and most importantly humor via 2 talking fish. The ad does not have an explicit call to action. The only benefit is one is now aware that a drug company cares about health eating and when the listener runs across marketing by the company they may see it in a more positive light vs. a manipulative ploy to highlight their drug (which relates to diabetes).

I think he ad is really funny, and the objective of putting a positive spin on the the company's brand should be easy to attain and measure via surveys and activity on social media (something they highlight in the ad).

Lipitor- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHuKjBcwb7U&feature=youtu.be
The ad highlights the ability of the product to lower cholesterol to the target market of people with measured high cholesterol or are worried that they may have high cholesterol. The apparent value proposition is that it will decrease heart disease (although the ad only mentions data that shows value in folks with existing heart disease the ad implies value for anyone with high cholesterol). It engages the viewer via a healthy nature scene, someone rowing, and calm peaceful music to instill a sense of calm and vitality. The ads call to action is "ask your doctor if Lipitor is right for you", visit the website or check out the ad in a magazine. That action is expected to yield a prescription and secondary benefit of lower cholesterol and decreased risk of heart disease.

I feel the objective was measurable because prescribing habits are obtainable on a pharmacy level.  The outcome was also attainable because people are always anxious about heart disease and cancer and cholesterol is familiar and simple number that they can understand in terms of risk (a fact that is very much in dispute).

Rozerem- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTiTAURabbA&feature=youtu.be
The ad highlights the ability of the drug to help you sleep better to a target market of folks with occasional insomnia (pretty much everyone). The apparent value proposition is this drug can help the person sleep but is not addictive and can be taken when needed. It engages the user via compassion for the person who can't sleep [he looks awful], humor with honest Abe Lincoln and an animal chatting. The ad's call to action is to "talk to your doctor" but doesn't mention the specific drug to request and is expected to yield improved sleep to the viewer who receives the prescription.

I feel the objective was measurable because prescribing habits are obtainable on a pharmacy level. The outcome (increased prescribing) was also attainable mostly because at that time most other sleep aids had been labeled as dangerous so the product was unique in the marketplace. This is perhaps why they don't mention the specific drug to ask for.

Vytorin- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_Szhp-jvqE&feature=youtu.be
The ad highlights the cholesterol lowering feature of the product to a target market of individuals with high cholesterol. The apparent value proposition is this drug will be more effective at lowering cholesterol than competive product because it lowers absorption of cholesterol and production of cholesterol. It engages the viewer by presenting picture of attractive food and people with funny poses and expressions. The ads call to action is "ask your doctor about adding Vytorin" and they also provide a phone number to call. Such action is expected to yield the benefit of lower cholesterol to the viewer.

I feel the objective was measurable because prescribing habits are obtainable on a pharmacy level. The outcome was also attainable because cholesterol is perceived as a marker of health danger, so the public sees lowering cholesterol as a worthwhile goal in of itself.

Overall the ads use a variety of techniques and in general a fairly simple "talk to your doctor" call to action. They focus on areas of challenge or frustration and offer a simple and targeted solution. When a drug is mentioned the possible downside is read by the voice-over but not visually displayed; thus fostering the image that this is would be a simple solution to their problem.


  1. Brad,
    I remember when that Zoloft ad came out. As you said all of the ads foster an image of an easy solution. I think that is what bothers me the most about all of big pharma's ads. As though health can be achieved by a pill alone. I did find the AstraZeneca one funny but long. It seems like offering free trials (Lipitor) could be risky business. They also seemed to limit all the side effects in these ads which may only complicate a person's current health.
    I wish they would outlaw them from television.

    1. Agreed. I think reducing illness, analysis and solution down to 30-120 seconds is a task that cannot be done. The background is too complicated and individualized. The explanations vary and there are multiple solutions all with different benefits and risks. I agree with your desire to get rid of them. Such ads are basically lying to their audience and by their brevity implying that that it's really pretty simple. If that were true we could replace health care with YouTube videos and pill machines.

  2. Love your unique spin on advertising and the way you targeted health related articles. In the end all of them seem to have the same call to action of first making people aware and then helping them get the conversation started so they can talk to their doctor. It can be hard to start a conversation with a doctor on what is going on with you emotional or physically. Having these ad’s provides that opportunity and the fish ad AstraZeneca, was funny and relatable because men have a harder time talking about their health concerns and making doctor appointments than women tend to have. Thank you for sharing your insight and these interesting ads.

    1. I agree that they are playing from the same rulebook and have a similar approach. Though some are better than others. I think the benefits you mention could be retained if a regulation did not let them mention a specific product. If they said "talk to your doctor about depression" that would be tremendous value. But once they say "ask you doctor about how Zoloft can help" they have moved away from providing information about an illness and into pushing a specific drug whether that drug is indicated or not or the best choice.