UPDATED: Devicemakers give pharma a run for their money with new DTC ads

Big Pharma is expected to spend $4.5 billion on DTC advertising this year. But some devicemakers are giving drug companies a run for their money with ads that lay out alternative therapies. The trend comes as drugmakers face increased scrutiny for DTC ads, which could potentially give devicemakers a boost.

For a colorful example of the device DTC movement, look no further than the side of the highway in Minneapolis. Local devicemaker Torax Medical put up billboard ads with flame-throwing archers and giant gray stomachs filled with toxic waste to advertise its Linx product for acid reflux.

Torax says it needs the ad campaign to compete with its pharma counterparts, including Procter & Gamble ($PG), Torax CEO Todd Berg told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. P&G already runs ads to promote its acid reflux pill Prilosec OTC, which feature celebrity endorser Larry the Cable Guy and the slogan "You can't beat zero heartburn."

Torax is not the only devicemaker in the space. Device heavyweight Stryker ($SYK) has experience in the DTC arena. Back in 2012, the company launched a DTC campaign for its "GetAroundKnee" knee replacement push, which talked up its orthopedics implants. Ads included videos of a woman pedaling around the suburbs on a vintage bike and people bowling.

Orthopedics giant Smith & Nephew ($SNN) also knows a thing or two about DTC. In 2007, the company promoted its Journey knee arthroplasty system through patient-focused ads. The TV spots, which ran in three markets, educated patients about knee conditions and encouraged them to talk to their doctors about knee pain and joint replacement.

But not everyone is on board with the DTC approach. Torax's billboard advertising is "an uncommon strategy" in the device industry, Tom Keppeler, Boston Scientific's Senior Manager of Global Media Relations, told FiercePharmaMarketing. Boston Scientific relies more on print and online advertising, as well as social media, to educate patients about its products.

"Pharma campagins are gigantic and they cost millions of dollars, but they're not very focused in terms of whom they're trying to reach," Stan Van Gent, Boston Scientific's Director of Market Development for Neuromodulation, told FiercePharmaMarketing.

The company's neuromodulation business "could never afford, nor would we want to, reach out to people on TV and the radio," Gent said. "We put money back into R&D, and we'd have to stop some of that to run TV ads."

Torax sees its latest campaign as a way to give patients "the other side of the story," Berg told the Star Tribune. Unlike P&G's ads, which turn acid reflux into "a gimmick and a joke," he said, Torax's ads seek to educate the patient about other therapies.

"We take the responsibility of marketing products to a consumer very seriously. We want to do it in a responsible way. I think you are going to see a lot of companies engaging those patients directly, because you can't rely on the health care system necessarily to do that. Especially if the only person talking to them are the pharmaceutical companies," Berg said.

Devicemakers and pharma are both feeling the heat over DTC. In November, the American Medical Association (AMA), one of the top physicians' groups, voted to ban all DTC advertising for drugs and medical devices. The group is worried "about the negative impact of commercially driven promotions and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices," AMA board chair-elect Patrice Harris said at the time.

Still, pharma could face a tougher road ahead than devicemakers. Device companies don't have to get their broadcast and print ads approved by the FDA before publication, but drugmakers do, FDA spokeswoman Deborah Kotz told the Minneapolis newspaper. And drug ads are subject to more detailed regulations, she added, even though device and drug ads have similar rules for making false or misleading claims.

- read the Star Tribune story

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Editor's note: This article was updated with comments from Boston Scientific.

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