The TV ad that changed the drug world

Anyone remember when pharma marketing was limited to doctor-oriented pitches? NPR takes us back to that time, highlighting the brainstorm of Joe Davis, who figured out in 1986 how to advertise the allergy drug Seldane on TV. That was before the law changed to allow drug brands to be mentioned without the entire laundry list of potential side effects alongside. So Davis thought, Why not leave out the name? Just tell viewers to ask their doctors.

And that's when it began: The modern era of pharma marketing, in which patients are often the ones who suggest drug treatment to their doctors, instead of vice versa. In which drugmakers spend around $4 billion a year on consumer ads.

NPR asks whether it's a coincidence that the average number of prescriptions used by each American has risen by 71 percent over the last 17 years. It's 12 scrips a year these days, compared with seven in 1992. To get some perspective on that, remember that the DTC rules changed in 1997. And for more, just look at what happened to Davis' Seldane. Before the ads aired, Seldane brought in about $34 million a year. The team was hoping to boost it to $100 million.

"But we went through $100 million," Davis told NPR. "And we said, 'Holy smokes.' And then it went through $300 million. Then $400 million. ...We were flabbergasted. And eventually it went to $800 million." Now, of course, $800 million doesn't even get you blockbuster status. Would we even have blockbuster drugs without consumer ads? Food for thought.

- read the NPR story
- get the WSJ Health Blog's take