Are drug ads a waste of money?

DTC ads work. That's the conventional wisdom--and the reason why U.S. drugmakers spent about $3.7 billion on them last year. But a new Harvard Medical School study, the first controlled study of DTC ads, challenges that belief. In fact, the study authors found that DTC advertising might be a waste of money.

Researchers went to Canada, which doesn't allow drugmakers to advertise to consumers. Canadians are, however, exposed to plenty of American media, and along with it, drug ads. Except for residents of Quebec, that is. In that French-speaking province most people get their TV fix from French-language media.

Comparing sales of the arthritis med Enbrel, allergy spray Nasonex, and irritable bowel drug Zelnorm (which has since been withdrawn) in English-speaking areas and in Quebec, the study found little change after major ad campaigns. A $194 million Enbrel campaign and $235 million Nasonex push failed to boost sales in the English-speaking provinces; scrip patterns were identical before and after ads ran. Zelnorm sales did leap by 40 percent in the English-speaking areas as its ad campaign began, but the effect quickly wore off, and sales patterns resumed their pre-ad appearance.

If this study is accurate, the good news is that all the ethical worries about DTC ads are baseless. The bad news is that ad spending may just be billions down the drain.

- read the story in the Washington Post
- check out Forbes' take
- see the U.S. News article