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Direct-To-Consumer Advertising Works

Logo - Millward Brown Direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising in the United States has been a subject of much controversy since restrictions on the practice were eased in 1998. Critics blame these ads for contributing to rising drug costs and unnecessary conflicts between patients and doctors, and recently, a widely publicized study has reported that they are not even effective at promoting the products they advertise. Are DTC ads worth the investment?

Pharmaceutical marketers, like their counterparts in other industries, are under constant pressure to justify their sales and marketing budgets. But in the United States, pharma marketers must also beat back accusations that advertising for their products is ineffective. For example, a recent (September 2008) study by Harvard researchers, which suggested that direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads do not improve drug sales, generated a great deal of coverage and controversy.

Like many others, we disagree with the conclusions of that study. The research used French Canadians as a control group, compared them to English-speaking Canadians who were exposed to some American DTC spillover, and concluded, based on retail prescription data for three drugs, that DTC advertising may not work. Because the study’s flaws have been fully explored elsewhere, we will simply reiterate the oft-stated observation that the conclusion cannot be justified by the research design. The research was conducted in a country with a national healthcare system and different drug pricing and prescribing restrictions than the United States. The media spillover was not measured, and no account was made for the quality of the creative or the number of people who saw the advertising that were actually among the target audience for the drug. Therefore, the study cannot possibly shed any light on the effectiveness of DTC advertising in the United States.

While we will always be eager to review research that has unexpected or controversial findings, we feel that the question the Harvard study attempted to address has already been definitively answered through our own research as well as that of other companies. The success of DTC advertising in the United States, as measured against a number of outcomes, cannot be disputed. In spite of having to clear additional hurdles beyond what is required of most advertising, DTC ads have been shown to have a clear and measurable impact on sales when studies are conducted using proper target audiences. Sound research and pretesting, which take into account the ways in which DTC advertising is both similar to and different from ads for other types of products, have no doubt helped pharma marketers refine their approach to satisfying regulatory guidelines while building awareness and strong brand associations.

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About the author
  • Angela Federici
    Senior Vice President, Managing Director MBNA Healthcare Practice
  • Millward Brown