While critics may fret, public likes DTC ads

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Since the U.S. Food & Drug Administration adjusted its marketing rules in 1997, the advertising industry has churned out a steady flow of advertising about prescription drugs designed to help people treat medical conditions ranging from heartburn to high cholesterol, allergies to obesity. This explosion of direct-to-consumer advertising has been a tremendous commercial success, both in print and on TV. But with increased attention placed on this high-profile advertising, we've seen consumer groups, government agencies, health insurance organizations and others line up with a chorus of criticism.

Recently, the National Insti-tute for Health Care Management issued a study that claims direct-to-consumer advertising has led to a major increase in retail prescription drug spending by persuading consumers to ask their doctors for newer, costlier medicines-this when there are less expensive, generic drugs that are just as effective.

The underlying message: Ad-vertisers are taking unfair advantage of consumers and are driving health care costs skyward.

But let's take a look at the whole picture. Each year, pharmaceutical companies bring dozens of new drugs to consumers' medicine cabinets. In their efforts to do this, companies spend over 10 times more on research and development than they do on advertising. So, what about the benefits to consumers?

On the theory that the best answer comes right from the horse's mouth, we have undertaken a recent comparative analysis of 11 public-opinion and advertising surveys of consumers, all conducted by respected national polling organizations and others mostly over the last 24 months. What we found is good news: Most consumers feel they are benefiting from what they see, hear and read.

Consumers find direct-to-consumer ads informative, and the reach is increasing. According to a 2000 survey by the journal Drug Topics, more than 75% of consumers thought the language of direct to consumer ads was easy to understand. A recent Time Inc. survey showed that nine out of 10 people recalled seeing a direct-to-consumer ad last year, up 7% from 1998.

Consumers say direct-to-consumer advertising has helped them become better informed and more involved. In a 1999 survey by Age Wave IMPACT, 62% of those between the ages of 50 and 64 said direct-to-consumer advertising has made them more aware of medication options they hadn't considered before. The same survey found two-thirds of Americans of all ages said that these ads have allowed them to become more involved with their health care.

Direct-to-consumer ads also help to increase awareness of diseases that go underdiagnosed and undertreated. According to a 2000 study by the FDA Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising & Communications, 27% of people talked to their doctors about a previously undisclosed medical condition after seeing or hearing an ad.

Consumers become motivated to see their physician and seek medical advice. According to the Age Wave study, of the more than 90% of people over 50 years old who said they saw or heard advertising for a prescription drug, 35% went on to speak to their primary care physician about it.

Consumers hold direct-to-consumer ads in higher regard than other advertising. A 1999 study by Market Facts of several types of advertising found that direct-to-consumer advertising ranks the highest in eight of nine categories, including: believability, encouraging better communication with an industry professional and providing clear and trustworthy information.

Ad-conscious consumers are more mindful of their medication. A survey by Prevention magazine showed that 33% of people were reminded to refill their prescriptions after having seen direct-to-consumer ads, and 31% said they were more likely to take their already prescribed medicine

Physicians confirm and support these trends. A 1999 survey by Louis Harris & Associates showed that more than seven out of 10 health plan medical directors believe ads educate people about prescription medicines, and almost one-third of physicians say direct-to-consumer ads encourage patients to schedule doctor visits.

Together, what do these surveys tell us?

First, direct-to-consumer advertising can help expand the reach of life-saving and life-improving drugs, to the benefit of the consumers. And, second, despite the red flags raised by policy hounds, consumers feel positive about this kind of advertising.

These ads set off a chain reaction of information, awareness and action on the part of the patient, working with a health care professional, to experience the best possible health outcomes. That ought to be a paradigm that advertising professionals and public-health advocates can live with.

Mr. McInturff is a partner and co-founder of polling company Public Opinion Strategies, Alexandria, Va., and conducted the polling on behalf of Sen. John McCain's 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

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