Is good pharmaceutical marketing possible?

14 years ago (on August 8, 1997, no less), the FDA issued guidelines that allowed for drug manufacturers to advertise. As the NY Times reported that day, Michael Friedman (then FDA’s lead deputy commissioner) had this is to say about the reason for the guidelines:

Today’s action can help promote greater consumer awareness about prescription drugs.

So, now 14 years later, we the public are all too used to seeing magazine pages filled with miniscule print and side-by-side bath tubs in the middle of nowhere:

However, rather than being hailed as useful consumer awareness building, pharmaceutical advertising is viewed with suspicion. As the Congressional Budget Office recently stated:

One concern is that DTC advertising may add to spending on drugs by consumers, insurers, and the federal government without providing enough benefits to justify that spending; specifically, some observers worry that DTC advertising encourages broader use of certain drugs than their health benefits warrant. Another concern is that DTC advertising for newly approved drugs may lead people to use drugs whose potential risks were not fully discovered during the drug approval process.

So, how can pharmaceutical marketing be improved in the public’s eye?

An interesting suggestion was recently made in the NY Times by Ian Spatz, a former Merck executive and now a senior adviser to a law firm:

A more effective way to limit the ads would be for Congress to pass legislation that would allow drug companies to cooperate with one another, and with physician and patient organizations, to develop joint ad campaigns that are specific to certain diseases and conditions but not to any particular drug. These ads would inform consumers about the disease; its treatment options, including pharmaceuticals; and how to gain further information not biased toward any particular brand.

Admittedly many may cringe at the prospect of more legislation or even ask why pharmaceuticals would need to forced to do the “right thing”; but, few can question that disease awareness and valuable public information on how to treat disease is a good thing.

So, how to distinguish the good from the bad?

As suggested above, the numbers of companies involved is an indicator. However, I have been involved with campaigns that had one participating pharmaceutical (like smoking cessation) and many participating pharmaceuticals (like hepatitis B); so, sheer numbers of manufacturers involved may not be the only indicator.

The defining characteristic of a “good” campaign (i.e. one that genuinely helped the public” vs a bad one (i.e. motivated by corporate greed) seems to be intent. While “intent” seems to be a nebulous word, I’d like to suggest some indicators using social media as an example:

  • Is conversation free flowing or edited? (given, of course, the usual delays typically seen with blog comments needing to be approved to prevent spam and inappropriate postings)
  • Does treatment information include drug and “alternative” treatments?
  • Are the blog’s commenters representative of a broad perspective (e.g. physician, patient, advocate)?

What do you think? What other indicators do you look for?

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