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Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs-for everything from high cholesterol to impotence-has exploded into general media. And with government rule changes expected this year, spending hikes could be seismic.

DTC ads were up 39% through November 1995, to $333 million. That's a jump of more than 500% from the $55.3 million spent in 1991, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

It's almost ironic that the Food & Drug Administration has been under fire from many groups for its prescription-drug ad rules-requiring long listings of medical contraindications-that supposedly hinder spending.


"The FDA is ready to go forward fairly soon," said John Kamp, senior VP at the American Association of Advertising Agencies, part of one coalition pushing the issue. "If they liberalize at all, the [spending] would at least double. If they issue truly enlightened rules, [spending] would multiply by 10 times in two years."

Mr. Kamp said he's skeptical FDA Commissioner David Kessler supports such changes, but is optimistic that lawsuits against the FDA from the Washington Legal Foundation and law firm Sonnenreich & Roccograndi will move matters along.

Even without rule changes, advertising should remain strong as consumers continue to take more responsibility for their own healthcare.

"What will continue to drive it is concerns about the rising cost of healthcare," said Tim Tyson, VP-general manager of marketing at Glaxo Wellcome, marketer of Zantac antacid, Flonase antihistamine, Imitrex migraine treatment, and other prescription brands being supported by direct-to-consumer advertising.


"One thing motivating phar-maceutical companies is that doctors are more accepting of patient phone calls saying, `I read about this drug,'*" said Win Gerson, chairman-CEO of New York-based William Douglas McAdams Inc., a medical agency now being acquired by Lowe & Partners/SMS and renamed Lowe McAdams Healthcare. Mr. Gerson said the evolution of healthcare, which requires more consumer involvement in decision-making, has helped change such attitudes.

Increasingly, the strength of spending behind some brands, such as Pharmacia & Upjohn's Rogaine hair loss product and Glaxo's Zantac, stems from efforts to increase awareness before an over-the-counter conversion. Both Rogaine and Zantac will drop such advertising, which totaled $55 million last year, in the next few months as OTC campaigns kick in.

The prescription-drug ads have been a boon to broad consumer magazines such as Time and People-a category that carried 77% of the business last year.

Mr. Gerson said attempts a few years ago to get reduced prices from magazine publishers for the required extra space for medical data were unsuccessful.

"It's been a windfall for publishers," he said.

FDA TV guidelines don't allow both a prescription brand name and the condition it treats to be mentioned, often confusing consumers. For the few brands advertised on TV, such as Rogaine and Claritin antihistamine from Schering-Plough Corp., 800-numbers are being used for direct response marketing.


More pharmaceutical marketers merely choose to advertise conditions, such as migraines and asthma, while urging consumers to consult their doctors.

Possible changes the FDA may consider include creating a special class of drugs that will allow a truly "brief summary," limited to about 25 words for TV and, for print, a shorter summary than is now used that would be more comprehensible by consumers.

Corporate advertising also has increased over the same period as pharmaceutical companies learn to better market themselves. While such spending has fallen off a bit from a high of $53.6 million in '93, according to CMR, the $50.1 million spent in 1995 was still well above 1991's $10.3 million.

With such growth in general media advertising, the medical ad agencies have started to find themselves at a disadvantage in competing with larger consumer agencies with such specialty units.

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