Direct-to-consumer drug ads tend to strike a dissonant chord. However, fan and foe can count on one thing: Prescription DTC advertising is here to stay. The evidence? Surviving more than 20 years of numerous legal, regulatory and perception challenges on its way to becoming a $6 billion-plus annual industry.
That’s mostly because DTC works. Study after study finds that patients follow the well-worn DTC advice and actually “ask your doctor” about a condition or a specific medicine after they’ve seen ads for a prescription drug on TV or online. A DRG study found that among patients who saw digital ads for drugs, 42% requested a specific prescription from their doctors, while 22% of people who saw TV ads did the same. Another study, by Wharton and University of Southern California professors, estimated that for every 10% increase in advertising exposure, there was a corresponding increase in the number of prescriptions purchased by about 5%.
“Despite the complaints from consumers, government, physicians, and insurers, it is clear drug companies see the increase in demand from DTC advertising. Drug companies know that consumers are now a key element in creating demand even though they still saturate the physicians with detailing and journal ads,” said Bob Ehrlich, CEO of consulting firm DTC Perspectives.
While Kantar Media is still working on a final pharma DTC total for 2019, spending through the first three quarters is roughly on track with 2018: $4.54 billion through nine months 2019 versus $4.79 billion the previous year. That's tracking down almost 4% from last year, when the final tally was $6.46 billion. However, while the pace may have slowed a bit, pharma ads are still plentiful. The average American sees nine drug ads on TV every day, while tens of millions of digital ads populate email, banners, video rolls and social media posts every year.
Digital pharma advertising, in fact, may be increasing DTC drug reach even though bottom-line media spending is not growing exponentially. As Steven Woloshin, M.D., a professor at Dartmouth Medical School, explained, as pharma advertising shifts from TV to digital, media budgets might actually drop—TV commercials are much more expensive than digital ad placements—as reach expands because consumers are exposed to more mobile and digital messages.
“The focus on DTC is increasing, while medical advertising is flat over time, but the DTC dollar figures are a little deceptive because of the shift toward these cheaper, low-unit mobile electronic formats that aren’t accurately reflected in the total cost because they’re so inexpensive, but may have more reach,” Woloshin said. He added that he doesn’t know how effective digital is, “but just the sheer volume of advertising they get from digital sources dwarfs what they get from TV.”
Besides expense, another reason pharma advertisers are moving to digital is for better targeting and measurement. Wendy Blackburn, executive VP of marketing and communication at Intouch Group, pointed to the ever-growing and evolving options today: addressable TV, on-demand services like Hulu, YouTube and Roku, programmatic purchasing, mobile, video search, social media and point of care.
“TV isn’t going away. But digital DTC continues to be on the rise, and a heavy digital DTC play can be an attractive option for small to medium brands seeking highly targeted (and highly measurable) methods, and for categories with younger patient populations,” she said.
Here are the top 10 pharma spenders as tabulated by Kantar for 2019. The total includes all U.S. media spending except social media. The figures cover TV, digital, radio, print and out of home. — Beth Snyder Bulik (email | Twitter)