Gastric-Band Maker Reaches Out With YouTube Channel

Realize's Ad Effort Is a First for DTC Marketing of a Medical Device

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NEW YORK ( -- In the video, Viki, a middle-age blonde, tears up recounting her moment of truth: A couple of years ago she was so obese that she could not chase after her toddler to keep him from running into the street.

DTC device marketing is not new, but Ethicon's YouTube effort is a first for a device.
DTC device marketing is not new, but Ethicon's YouTube effort is a first for a device.
If this sounds like a setup for a weight-loss ad, that's because it is. But not for a diet shake, pill or plan. The video is for Ethicon Endo-Surgery's Realize adjustable gastric band -- a device placed around the stomach that restricts food intake. The video is on Realize Band's branded YouTube channel.

"Video is such a powerful medium for people who are having this type of surgery," said Mary Ann Belliveau, managing director of Google Health Vertical. "What the channel does is give the patients a home for this, so they can get a more thorough experience, specifically with the company and the brand."

Device ads on the rise
As both online and medical technology have improved, device DTC advertising has grown, said Peter Pitts, partner and director of global health-care at PR firm Porter Novelli, and a former associate commissioner for external relations at the Food and Drug Administration. So much so that AdvaMed, the trade association for medical-device manufacturers, issued "guiding principals" for marketing to consumers in March. "Overall, the importance is to be sure that you have truthful, non-misleading balanced risk information, regardless of media," said Khatereh Calleja, associate VP-technology and regulatory affairs at AdvaMed. Ethicon's parent company, Johnson & Johnson, is a member of the trade association.

The FDA's regulations governing device marketing are, for the most part, no different than those for pharmaceuticals. "Whether it's drug advertising or device advertising, the most important thing is if the message is of value to the public health," Mr. Pitts said.

Indeed, DTC device marketing is not new: Makers of pacemakers and artificial hips and knees have advertised to consumers for years. But Ethicon's YouTube effort is a first for a device.

And it couldn't come at a more opportune time. America's so-called obesity epidemic is a hot topic, and the market for surgical weight loss is growing, especially as celebrities such as Al Roker and Star Jones have publicized their own experiences under the knife. The adjustable gastric band is one of several surgical weight-loss options. About 1% of the 15 million people medically eligible -- 220,000 Americans -- had some form of bariatric surgery in 2008. According to the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery, patients usually lose the most weight in the first two years after surgery.

The Realize band's YouTube channel went live June 20 and already has received nearly 8,000 channel views. Ethicon also has a branded site for the band, where patients can learn more about the surgery and join the device's online support program.

Educating patients
In the video on YouTube, Viki describes her own experience with the Realize band. On the Realize website, consumers can read Viki's diary, as well as those of other patients. Complementing Viki's story on YouTube, there is a video simulating implantation of the band, and another explaining how to financially prepare for the surgery, which costs $17,000-$26,000 on average, according to the ASMBS. Insurance coverage varies by carrier. There is also a series produced by Discovery Health about patients' experiences with bariatric surgery.

The ASMBS does not have a stance on the YouTube channel or DTC advertising for devices, but its president, Dr. John Baker, said that in general, educated patients make better patients. "The more information that a patient has when they come to see the doctor, the better that they can have realistic expectations about what's required on their part."

Google Health's Ms. Belliveau said YouTube has seen growth in user-generated and professionally made health-care videos. In Rodale/Prevention's annual study on consumers and DTC drug advertising, 77% of the 1,501 people surveyed indicated that they search online for information about a specific medical condition, and 48% search online for information about a prescription medicine. What's more, 37% of those who search online have discussed medical information they found online with their doctor, and the majority of doctors said this was a positive thing.

The problem with social networking
While the data from the Rodale survey tracks DTC advertising of prescription drugs, Cary Silvers, director of Consumer Insights, said that he expected consumer behavior to be similar for medical devices. "People are getting used to searching, whether it's for a car or camera, and this is pretty much the same for health information," he said.

But Mr. Silvers points out that only 9% of patients watched that health video on a video-sharing site such as YouTube; the majority of patients seek online video from health and wellness sites. Mr. Silvers said this might be because on a health and wellness site, content is more of a match, whereas YouTube can have videos that are only tenuously related. "There's the problem with any type of social networking, or YouTube -- it's a wild, wild West of other videos, right along with it," he said.

The Ethicon marketing team, which collaborated in answering a series of questions for Ad Age, said it does not have specific ROI goals for the YouTube effort; it is part of an entire educational and marketing campaign. Last year, Ethicon spend nearly $12 million on measured media for Realize Band, according to TNS Media Intelligence. In the first three months of 2009, Ethicon spent $3.5 million. Ethicon declined to comment on the cost of the YouTube investment.

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