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Drugmakers likely to lob softer pitches

Drug companies are under fire for how they advertise prescription drugs to consumers, and that may spur changes in their marketing, say advertising experts and industry analysts.

Not only has the Food and Drug Administration promised to step up policing of consumer drug ads that make unrealistic claims, but legislators in four states also have recently introduced bills that would ban or curb consumer drug ads in their states.

What's more, a panel of FDA advisers last month recommended that consumer advertising of COX-2 painkillers Celebrex and Bextra be limited or banned, blaming aggressive marketing for their inappropriate use. Limits would also extend to Vioxx if drugmaker Merck brings it back to market after withdrawing it last fall because of safety concerns.

While it's too early to see big changes in drug industry pitches, the flurry of activity has gotten the attention of the pharmaceutical industry.

"I think there's a regrouping going on. They're going to be terribly, terribly careful," says Frank Ginsberg, CEO of advertising agency Avrett Free Ginsberg.

He and others expect fewer ads in the future that name a prescription drug — and thus usually have to include potential side effects — and more general ads that describe medical conditions and then direct consumers to doctors, Web sites and 800-numbers for specific product and risk information.

Bad press isn't the only thing driving change.

Drugmakers are starting to "hit a wall" with current advertising approaches, says Mark Bard, president of Manhattan Research, which helps companies develop marketing strategies.

The pharmaceutical industry spent $4.1 billion on consumer drug ads last year, up 28% from 2003 and far outpacing the 6.3% rise for ad spending across all industries, Nielsen Monitor-Plus says.

Still, the percentage of consumers who recalled a drug ad — and what it was about — dipped slightly last year for the first time in three years to 68% from 71% the year before, a Manhattan Research study of 4,500 U.S. adults showed.

What's more, 14% of consumers who saw drug ads last year then asked their doctors about the medication, down from 15% in 2001 despite increased ad spending, the study said.

Consumer drug ads also mainly influence patients already diagnosed with a condition. They're not as effective in reaching consumers who may need treatment but don't know it, says Sue Ramspacher, senior vice president of market researcher NOP World Health.

By educating consumers about health conditions, more may seek treatment. That expands the market for drugmakers, she says.

"The industry realizes it needs to take a more holistic approach to educating consumers (first) and promoting brand awareness in a very sensitive market," Bard says.

David Gascoigne, promotion consulting expert at IMS Health, also expects fewer huge ad campaigns that promote a particular drug such as a Celebrex or Vioxx. Instead, he says companies will pursue smaller, more targeted advertising and public relations campaigns.

Two big ad campaigns are already gone. Last year, Merck and Pfizer spent about $187 million promoting Vioxx and Celebrex, respectively, to consumers, market researcher Nielsen Monitor-Plus says.

Merck pulled Vioxx from the market in September because of heart attack and stroke concerns. Pfizer pulled Celebrex consumer advertising in December amid concerns that it, too, posed increased cardiovascular risk.

Looking ahead

Analysts say several recent campaigns are clues to future trends:

• An 11-month-old blood-pressure campaign by Novartis, dubbed Take Action for Healthy BP. The campaign started with TV and print ads and is now just a Web site: www.healthybp.com.

The opening page includes information about high blood pressure as well as a link for a "30-day free trial" of Divoan and Lotrel, blood pressure drugs from Novartis.

Consumers are then directed to another page where they're told to work with their doctor to see whether a 30-day free trial of either of the drugs would be helpful.

Novartis says its mission is to help people reach and maintain blood pressure goals, which may involve use of its drugs. The Web site also offers heart-healthy recipes, exercise tips, a blood pressure diary and a heart health quiz.

• A campaign by Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals for migraine prevention. An Internet site, www.4migraineprevention.com, urges consumers to "discover how to have fewer migraines."

The name of Ortho's migraine-prevention drug Topamax doesn't come up on the opening screen. But there's a link that takes viewers to the Topamax site after urging them to "learn about a treatment for preventing migraines." Topamax had $1.4 billion in 2004 sales.

Internet gains

While ads focused on medical conditions may offer some consumer benefit over product-oriented ads, consumers still need to be wary, says Alex Sugerman-Brozan, director of the consumer focused Prescription Access Litigation Project.

"Any drug ads are designed to sell drugs," he says. "Industry self-regulation is not an answer to excesses in drug advertising. We still need more oversight by the FDA."

Whether the industry alters its tactics, there's likely to be more Internet advertising. Compared with a short TV ad, the Internet lets drugmakers give consumers more information, which is important when explaining a drug's risks and benefits. The Internet also connects drug marketers directly to consumers who may be interested in their products.

For instance, on the Web site www.4migraineprevention.com consumers provide names and contact information if they wish to receive a free information kit.

Last year, Internet spending accounted for $5 million of the industry's $4.1 billion in consumer drug advertising, Nielsen Monitor-Plus says. That's expected to grow.


Julie Schmit, USA TODAY. March 15, 2005

Copyright © 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.. All rights reserved.