New drugs, new money: Surge in cancer DTC ads follows wave of I-O debuts

As more oncology treatments have flooded the market, so has cancer DTC advertising. But as the American Society of Clinical Oncology's 2018 meeting neared, Syneos Health wanted to know just how big that wave has been, so its researchers analyzed Kantar data for oncology products going back to 2008.

What they found was a big spike. The $497 million spent on oncology consumer ads last year was more than six times the $80 million spent on cancer DTC over seven previous years (2008-2014).

The percentages allocated to DTC by makers of cancer drugs saw a big jump as well. From 2008 to 2014, DTC accounted for anywhere from 1% to 7% of all their spending on oncology promotions, which include in-person detailing to physicians, meetings and events, and professional journal ads. But in 2017, DTC jumped to 39% of that spending.

Much of the increase was driven by three drugs: immunotherapies Opdivo from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Keytruda from Merck, along with Pfizer's kinase inhibitor Ibrance.

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“It’s a combination of new products on the market and the types of new products on the market,” said Jason Fox, vice president of Syneos Health’s syndicated operations and service. “A lot of the spend increase is due to the investment in immunotherapies.”

The new immunotherapy mechanism helped drive oncology DTC as makers looked to get the word out about the options immuno-oncology drugs offer—and to highlight advantages such as avoiding debilitating side effects of older treatments, he said.

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The next 18 months to two years will likely continue to see oncology DTC spending trend upward, he said. But at the same time, real-world evidence will begin to determine whether immunotherapies are as effective as they seem to be in trials, which will also determine future mass media ad spending in oncology.

“If they find that Opdivo and Keytruda aren’t as effective as they thought, obviously they probably won’t be doing mass media campaigns. They’ll likely go back to a more traditional physician advertising campaign,” Fox said. “… It’s all related to outcomes. If the drugs are successful, then sure, manufacturers will continue to do DTC.”