Keytruda's head-to-head against Opdivo rockets meds to Nos. 2 and 3 in ad spending

Keytruda Opdivo
Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb cancer drugs headlined the pharma TV ad spending chart for February.

It’s a DTC category that didn’t even exist on national television two years ago. But last month, dueling immuno-oncology drugs from Merck & Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb ranked second and third in pharma TV ad spending.

The two companies laid out a total of more than $33 million—$17.6 million for Merck's Keytruda and $16 million for BMS' Opdivo—in national TV ad placement buys for February, according to data from real-time TV ad tracker iSpot.tv.

The use of consumer mass media is a big shift in traditional cancer drug marketing, which has traditionally been focused on direct marketing to physicians and healthcare providers. When Bristol-Myers launched the Opdivo TV commercial in fall 2015, it was the first time the company had run a branded cancer drug ad.

The ad quickly gained notice and traction with consumers, as well as with the industry and investors. While Keytruda was slower to make the move to DTC on television, sticking to journal and print ads for more than a year, its aggressive arrival in late January is a shot across Opdivo’s bow.

With the two drugs' TV pushes and with immuno-oncology currently one of the hottest areas of research, does that mean TV ads become the price of admission for any new competitors? If so, can Roche's Tecentriq—and future immunotherapies, including CAR-T drugs—be next to hit the airwaves? 

Of course, cancer isn’t the only trending pharma topic on TV. Diabetes drug spending remains strong as the competitive set scrambles for patients and market share with Johnson & Johnson’s Invokana at No. 4 and Eli Lilly’s Trulicity at No. 6.

AbbVie’s Humira still tops the spending list with $20.9 million across its three indications, although overall spending among the top 10 dropped to $137 million in February, down from January's $173 million.

1. Humira
Movement: Stayed same
What is it? AbbVie anti-inflammatory drug
Total estimated spending: $20.9 million (down from $35 million in January)
Number of spots: 8 (3 for arthritis, 3 for ulcerative colitis/Crohn's disease, 2 for psoriasis)
Biggest-ticket ad: "Volunteering” for arthritis (est. $9.1 million)

2. Keytruda
Movement: New to list
What is it? Merck’s PD-1 cancer fighter
Total estimated spending: $17.6 million
Number of spots: 1
Biggest-ticket ad: “Sharon’s Story”

3. Opdivo
Movement: Stayed same
What is it?  Bristol-Myers Squibb PD-1 cancer fighter
Total estimated spending: $16 million (down from $18.6 million in January)
Number of spots: 1
Biggest-ticket ad: “Most Prescribed Immunotherapy”

4. Invokana
Movement: Up from No. 7
What is it? J&J SGLT2 diabetes drug
Total estimated spending: $14.3 million (up from $13.1 million in January)
Number of spots: 1
Biggest-ticket ad: “Turn Things Around”

5. Lyrica
Movement: Down from No. 2
What is it? Pfizer seizure and pain drug
Total estimated spending: $13.8 million (down from $24.7 million in January)
Number of spots: 4
Biggest-ticket ad: "More Active” ($4.7 million)

6. Xeljanz XR
Movement: Down from No. 5
What is it? Pfizer’s second-line, oral rheumatoid arthritis therapy
Total estimated spending: $12.7 million (down from $17.1 million in January)
Number of spots: 2
Biggest-ticket Ad: "Better Things” ($8.9 million)

7. Trulicity
Movement: Down from No. 4
What is it? Eli Lilly GLP-1 diabetes drug
Total estimated spending: $12.6 million (down from $17.4 million in January)
Number of spots: 2
Biggest-ticket ad: “Katherine” (est. $7 million)

8. Eliquis
Movement: Up from No. 10
What is it? Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb anticoagulant
Total estimated spending: $10.4 million (down from $10.9 million in January)
Number of spots: 2
Biggest-ticket ad: "DVT and PE blood clots: Camping” (est. $5.2 million)

9. Farxiga
Movement: Down from No. 6
What is it? AstraZeneca SGLT2 diabetes drug
Total estimated spending: $9.4 million (down from $13.7 million in January)
Number of spots: 1
Biggest-ticket ad: "For Athletes"

10. Rexulti
Movement: Not on list last month
What is it? Otsuka and Lundbeck’s anti-psychotic
Total estimated spending: $9.2 million
Number of spots: 1
Biggest-ticket ad: “Put on a Brave Face”