Pharma's ad spend vaults to $4.5B, with big spender Pfizer leading the way

Suspicions are confirmed: Pharma's spending on ads took a flying leap last year. By Kantar Media's numbers, direct-to-consumer ad spend hit $4.53 billion in 2014, up about 18% from $3.83 billion in 2013.

That total beats the last several years handily, and for ad agencies and media outlets, marks a heartening recovery from the $3.47 billion trough in 2012. It's higher than the $4.17 billion spent in 2010 and higher than the $4.43 billion total in 2008. And while it's not exactly in the neighborhood of the $5.4 billion spent in 2006--the DTC peak--it's at least in the same city.

One drugmaker was responsible for a big chunk of that increase. In fact, one drugmaker ranked among the top 10 advertisers of any kind, ahead of Verizon ($VZ), Toyota ($TM) and Chrysler, and just a hair behind L'Oreal. And in terms of year-over-year growth, that drugmaker beat out all its fellow top advertisers, with a 23% leap in 2014 spending.

We'll let you think on that one a bit.

The oddsmakers were expecting a boost, after a bumper crop of new launches in 2013 and even more approvals in 2014. But while newer meds did help pump up the overall spending numbers, only one recently launched drug made the top 5.

That was Eliquis, the anticoagulant drug from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Pfizer ($PFE). Third to launch in a group of warfarin alternatives, Eliquis was slow out of the gate after its 2012 approval. But Bristol-Myers and Pfizer socked more money into ads--and marketing--and those numbers have turned around. According to the Washington Post, the two companies socked $221 million into Eliquis ads last year.

The rest of the most-advertised meds are familiar faces: Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Cialis, the erectile dysfunction med that's a perennial entry in the ad-spending ranks. It topped the chart with $272 million, up slightly from 2013, as Lilly works to rake in sales while the drug is still on patent.

In second place, another aging med facing patent loss: Humira, the megablockbuster anti-inflammatory treatment from AbbVie ($ABBV). That company shelled out $259 million on Humira ads last year--an amount that's down slightly from 2013, surprisingly enough.

A Viagra DTC advertisement

Pfizer's pain drug Lyrica comes in third with $246 million, followed by its erectile dysfunction med Viagra, with $232 million. Included in that drug's budget was an ad that raised some eyebrows; it featured a woman talking frankly about--how shall we put it--real-world Viagra use.

If you've been keeping track of the company names here, you won't be surprised to discover that Pfizer once again spent more on consumer ads than any other drugmaker. The company plunked down $1.4 billion on ads last year, Kantar Media says, putting it in 7th place among all advertisers.

In fact, says Kantar Media, Pfizer has increased its ad spending for each of the last 7 quarters. The company has consumer products to hawk, in addition to prescription meds; one of those was a new launch, Nexium 24HR, an over-the-counter version of the AstraZeneca ($AZN) stomach drug. But the company's spending growth has been "principally for top-selling Rx brands," Kantar says, "which are under patent protection and don't face competition from generic alternatives."

Obviously, Pfizer plunked down quite a bit on the three of its drugs that made the top 5, advertising-wise. But the company also had some newer meds to support, including the anti-inflammatory Xeljanz. And it kept supporting its now-off-patent pain pill Celebrex, with "Body in Motion" TV commercials that aired into the fall.

- see the Kantar Media numbers
- check out the Post blog

Special Reports: Top 15 pharma companies by 2014 revenue | Pfizer | AbbVie | Eli Lilly | Bristol-Myers Squibb