Web thrives as DTC platform

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Levitra, Zyrtec and Zoloft are practically household words thanks to the flood of direct-to-consumer TV and print ads from pharmaceutical companies. But do consumers really understand the ads? The Food and Drug Administration recently decided to survey consumers to determine whether 30-second TV ads sufficiently convey enough product-risk information and if multi-page magazine inserts are too full of off-putting medical jargon.

In its survey of prescription-drug advertising, however, the FDA stumbled across something else: More people are turning on their computers and shutting off the TV or closing the magazine. The survey found 38% of respondents report using the Internet as a source of information for finding prescription drugs, up 20% in the last five years.

"That's a lot," said Thomas Abrams, director of the FDA's Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communication (DDMAC). "When you put it in the context of some of the other results of the survey, it's a lot."

Of 500 physicians surveyed this year, 87% of general practitioners and 86% of specialists said patients asked about advertised medication. Of those, 65% of general practitioners' patients and 52% of specialists' patients asked for drugs by name.

Yet the same FDA survey also found that only 32% of patients in 2002 agreed that ads for prescription drugs helped them make more informed decisions about their health, well below the 47% who thought DTC ads were helpful in 1999.

"Clearly, the ads work," said Kathryn Aikin, co-director of DDMAC. "But it's also a case of a public becoming more informed and, for some, more skeptical."

To reach that skeptical public, many pharmaceutical companies have linked prescription medications such as Nexium and Zocor to their own Web sites from the main company sites.

GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer AG, for instance, spent $18 million of the $50 million rollout for erectile-dysfunction drug Levitra on its NFL sponsorship and subsequent Web campaign, tacklingmenshealth.com. "These are different times, newer times," said David Pernock, senior VP, GlaxoSmithKline U.S. Pharmaceuticals. "If you can get men to address their health problems and the Internet is a viable tool for that, there shouldn't be any question about using a Web site."

key component

Maintaining an Internet presence is proving to be a key component of DTC campaigns. And it's a component that was rarely, if ever, addressed by the FDA in previous scrutiny of DTC advertising.

Dr. Alan Goldhammer, executive director-technical affairs, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, called on the FDA to issue guidelines for interactive DTC advertising.

"With entities such as the Internet ... there is a need to communicate risk and benefit information in these mediums that are neither purely print nor broadcast," he said in September at FDA public hearings. He also pointed to a Harvard University/Harris poll that showed the Web is the least-used resource for consumer drug information at 8%, behind physicians (28%) and DTC print and TV ads (26%), but growing faster than traditional media.

Still to be determined is whether the FDA will include interactive marketing in guidelines it is expected to issue by the end of the year.

"The Internet has definitely been an area where pharmaceutical companies are looking to explore and expand, but has been relatively untouched by the FDA," said Mike Guarini, managing director of Ogilvy HealthCare, part of WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York. "If you look at their own survey results, they have to give it as much consideration as print and television."

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