I recently got an email from Mike Myatt, leadership expert and author. During a recent trip, Mike must have seen one too many Viagra TV commercials while waiting at the airport. With his permission, I wanted to publish what he wrote, and provide some additional background surrounding pharmaceutical industry marketing practices.
The Worst TV Advertising Ever
Myatt writes, “As much as good television advertising is memorable, bad TV advertising is even more memorable. Nowhere is the mark of bad advertising more indelibly etched into my mind than the pathetic attempts served up by the drug companies. Seriously, have you ever seen a commercial for a pharmaceutical company that was anything other than horrible? I’m not going to debate the ethics of Direct-To-Consumer Advertising [DCTA], and certainly there are some regulatory constraints governing ad content that other industries don’t have to deal with, but nonetheless, these are clearly the worst commercials on television.”
“Call me critical if you will, but with ad spending on the rise for pharmaceutical companies, can’t their ad agencies do better? Sure they can…they just don’t. Fifteen-, 30-, and 60-second spots are long enough to both create a compelling brand message and protect the consumer. Television is a wonderful medium that allows a well crafted ad to both intrigue and inform. If I was a CMO at one of the large drug companies I’d demand better creative that is still compliant. In many industries executive leadership can fall prey to the DITWLY (Did It That Way Last Year) factor, but with respect to television advertising it seems that the drug companies have taken it one step further in succumbing to the WDITWF (Will Do It That Way Forever) factor.
In an industry that makes its living by being at the forefront of the innovation curve, I would expect more from its advertising efforts. My advice: fire your ad agencies and go back to the drawing board — you couldn’t do any worse.”
Ethics of DTCA
Myatt said he would not debate the ethics of DTCA — but I will. DTCA in the pharmaceutical industry has traditionally been controversial because the marketing message is directed toward the patient, not the prescribing healthcare provider. Presently, there are only two developed countries in the world where DTCA is legal — the United States and New Zealand. What does the rest of the world know that these two countries don’t? Either censorship is good, or patients are stupid.
I was on the “front lines” as a field sales representative for Mead Johnson Nutritionals (NYSE:MJN) in 1997, the year when DTC advertising became legal in the U.S. I recall the first TV commercials — Claritin’s “Blue Skies” campaign starring Joan London — probably because of the controversy it created for me. Field sales representatives in the pharmaceutical industry are involved in what is referred to as “ethical promotion.” It is considered “ethical” because the representative educates physicians about a product, who in turn, should prescribe the most appropriate product for his or her patients. At the time, I promoted infant formula, which is not a prescription product, but has always been treated as such, because of the sensitivity of influencing a woman to choose between breast versus bottle feeding. Nestle Carnation was the first infant formula to advertise on television in the U.S. Why? Because U.S. pediatricians essentially boycotted Nestle Carnation as a result of the company’s controversial marketing tactics via a combination of DTCA and “ethical promotion.” During the early 1970s, the company had sales representatives dress like nurses and hand out free infant formula samples to mothers in third world countries. Very little instruction was provided to the patient on how to properly mix the infant formula. As a result, many infants died from malnutrition and disease.
Pros and Cons to DTCA
Some perceive DTCA as a means to circumvent the healthcare provider, to which I would agree, if a product did not require a prescription to obtain. Others see DTCA as a means of education, to which I also agree. When I was in the field, I had some physicians tell me how a TV commercial prompted patients to come to them seeking treatment. Prior to seeing the commercial, the patient thought there was nothing that could be done for their affliction. But with some commercials, all you know is to “go ask your healthcare provider if the purple pill is right for you.” I have to agree with Myatt’s assertion that drug companies need to improve their DTCA campaigns. While they are at it, let’s take another look at the silly notion that a 10 cent pen with a drug company logo on it can influence a physician’s prescribing behavior. If the absence of DTCA in other countries is an indication that patients are stupid, then what does existing state legislation about pens and post-it-notes imply as to our opinion regarding physicians?