J&J stance on DTC ads irks rivals

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Johnson & Johnson CEO William Weldon is challenging rivals to follow the company's lead and reveal more in marketing about the risks of using their products. But Big Pharma execs charge that it's little more than a public relations ploy, and say they have no plans to unite behind his cause.

"I don't think you'll find anybody who doesn't agree that DTC needs some changing," said one pharmaceutical marketing chief. "But I don't think you'll find anybody who likes being called out, either."

The rift in the $4.4 billion direct-to-consumer advertising business is reminiscent of what happened earlier this year in the food arena when Kraft Foods said it would limit advertising aimed at kids under 12. DTC marketers have questioned the motivation behind Mr. Weldon's comments, made as he accepted the chairmanship of the industry's primary trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

DTC advertising has been under increasing scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration, Congress and the general public, triggered late last year by the removal of Vioxx from the market and the FDA's request that Pfizer pull all ads for Celebrex.


"We should start by recognizing that the framework we call DTC advertising may inadvertently minimize the importance and power of medicines and their risks," said Mr. Weldon. "Our communication with patients should really be thought of as direct-to-consumer education." In challenging the industry to reaffirm the public's trust in the safety and value of prescription medications, Mr. Weldon premiered a J&J ad that includes more risk-related information and asked his peers to do the same.

Some took it as grandstanding. "Everybody can see the storm coming now," scoffed one industry executive. "I just wonder where he was with this thinking eight or nine months ago, before Vioxx, before Celebrex, when things with DTC were relatively calm." Mr. Weldon could not be reached for comment.

"There absolutely has to be a relevant response to the criticisms of DTC," said the president of one health-care-centric ad agency. "Do they really believe people are going to be enthralled if you make a bigger point of saying that by taking this medication you`ll be vomiting quite a bit?"

The issue is enough of a hot button that most of the major pharma companies contacted by Advertising Age, including AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers-Squibb, Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis and Eli Lilly either declined to comment or did not return calls.

A few did respond. Pfizer provided a statement from its president of U.S. Pharmaceuticals, J. Patrick Kelly, who said the company has already been working to make its advertising more effective at communicating risk. "Pfizer has been talking to patient groups, physicians and other stakeholders and is developing plans to evolve our DTC practices to improve our communications around risk; reinforce the patient/physician relationship; and motivate people to act on their health."

Wyeth Chairman-CEO Robert Essner agreed it's time for a sea change in DTC, and said "the tone of some of the ads out there today tend to not convey that drugs are serious."

Breaking ranks, however, is clearly difficult in the highly competitive pharmaceutical industry. GlaxoSmithKline CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier said in a recent published report that he'd "like to spend less [on] promotion and marketing, and more on research and development. I'm trying to reduce [consumer advertising] ... but there is no first mover advantage." Mr. Garnier could not be reached for comment on Mr. Weldon's remarks.

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