Brutal honesty in drug marketing? For obesity meds, it's key to avoiding the 'magic pill' trap

Weight Watchers figured it out and so did "The Biggest Loser." Dieting and exercise to lose weight is more effective when done with support--and possibly 15 minutes of fame.

Real research has proven the same thing--minus the fame, of course--and weight-loss drugmakers have taken that to heart in marketing their treatments. But according to a recent Journal of Public Policy & Marketing article, lifestyle support isn't enough. Drugmakers may want to look to their advertising pitches, too.

According to the researchers, drug marketing led to unhealthy behavior by patients who made wrong assumptions about what the drugs could do. It's the old magic pill effect--why bother with healthy eating and exercise when a pill can fix the weight problem?

Two things can turn that around, the article notes: nutrition knowledge and remedy knowledge. In fact, it's the latter that's most important, the researchers concluded. Understanding the specific risks and benefits of weight-management drugs and supplements was key to changing behavior, they said.

Drugmakers so far have focused on nutrition-and-exercise support, along with behavioral modifications, just as the Endocrine Society now advises in its obesity drug guidelines. Vivus' ($VVUS) Qsymia brand, for instance, offers Q & Me, a free weight loss support program with tools and strategies including a personalized plan, daily tips, medication reminders, and a fitness, nutrition and calorie tracker-slash-app.

Eisai's Belviq offers a similar programs via its Believe Everyday Support with a one-year subscription to Lose It!, a fitness and nutrition tracking and support program. Takeda's Contrave goes more high-tech with access to the third-party Scale Down program--normally $99 for three months or $159 for a year--as long as the person is taking Contrave. A digital "smart scale," connected to a mobile app, is delivered to the patient's home. The patient is expected to weigh in every day, and the app collects daily weight information, melds it with other patient info, and triggers personalized texts with behavioral advice for the day.

All well and good, the journal article says, but to be really successful with patients--and payers, by proving outcomes--drugmakers ought to dial in their promotional pitches. Honesty could end up being a marketing edge.

"Weight-management remedy marketing presents a dilemma to marketers and regulators: on the one hand, marketing efforts may increase awareness and consumer adoption of remedies that could improve consumer health and welfare," the authors contend. "On the other hand, such marketing efforts may also lead consumers to neglect complementary health-protective behaviors that contribute to an overall healthy lifestyle, with potential negative consequences for consumer health. A better understanding of weight-management remedy marketing and its relationship with health literacy may help turn that peril into promise."

- see the journal article