Pharma spending on linear TV ads falls for first time in years, accelerating transition to digital

Was last year a tipping point in the transition to digital pharma advertising? A fresh slice of data from Standard Media Index suggests that might be the case, revealing spending on linear TV fell for the first time in years and that digital’s share of the media mix passed 50%.

In recent years, digital has increased its share of the media mix, per SMI’s data, but pharma companies have still been spending more and more on TV spots. That changed in 2022, when spending on TV fell by 4% year on year. Darrick Li, vice president of sales in North America at SMI, outlined how the market is moving in an interview with Fierce Pharma. 

“There has been a little bit of a replacement of ad spending dollars on TV with digital. TV is still massive, in our pool it represents $5 billion, which is a huge amount of spend by pharmaceutical advertising, but we've started to see in the last year that the shift is a little bit more pronounced,” Li said. “It's pretty phenomenal that we're seeing that shift happen so quickly.”

Conditions over the past few years have favored digital. When buying linear TV advertising, it is “a little bit harder to be flexible and fluid with the campaign and the commitments,” Li said, creating problems for pharma companies that needed to react to changes such as lockdowns during the pandemic. Last year, digital’s share of the media mix rose from 49.6% to 52.6%, while linear TV fell from 46.4% to 42.9%.

Now, the macroeconomic environment is affecting spending patterns. While SMI’s data for January show pharma companies are continuing to spend more on advertising, even as their counterparts in tech and consumer goods pull back, “maybe they're not making as big of commitments,” Li said, or they’re making bigger upfront commitments to make “sure that they’re getting the most out of their ad spend.”

The fall in spending on linear TV coincided with an increase in investment in long-form digital video, also known as connected TV. Linear TV continues to account for the vast majority of pharma video ad spend, but Li’s data show “a big shift to OTT”—the acronym for over-the-top media services such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney+.