Written by Lauren Kamufon April 20, 2016
in Behavioural insights, DTC, PatientConsumer™

When the FDA allowed direct-to-consumer advertising in 1997, it was a bit of a holy-grail moment for pharma, and an opportunity to speak directly to patients. In theory, this was a strategic shift towards patient marketing and patient centricity.  This change also meant that PatientConsumer™ media habits needed to be understood in order to reach them at the right time, in the right channels.  In the late nineties, that meant leaning in on mass media channels like TV.

In 2015, Kantar Media reports that pharma advertisers spent $5.4 million in 2015, tying a decade-old record from 2006.  Obviously, it was a good year for new product introductions and marketing investment.  But what’s astounding — if not disheartening — is the advertising mix.  It’s still dominated by mass TV, with a bit of print, and a bit of digital marketing.  In short, a typical late nineties advertising mix.

Problem is that today’s PatientConsumer™ is a social media-savvy, smartphone-connected, app-happy, wearable-wearing, peer-influenced, Google answer seeker. Brand engagement and expectations have changed dramatically in almost 20 years of DTC advertising, driven by broad technology and media innovation, in and out of healthcare.  Even in healthcare, health app and wearable usage has doubled in just two short years (33% in 2016 vs. 16% in 2014 for apps and 21% in 2016 vs. 9% in 2014 for wearable technology).

There’s also a growing resentment over DTC TV advertising.  The PatientConsumer sees frequent DTC TV ads during primetime and events like the SuperBowl, only to be sticker shocked when exposed to the costs of these treatments. They naturally make a correlation between the two and think that these pricey ads are driving up their drug costs – a false truth often reinforced by media and politicians.  But perception is reality.


The advertisers of the top 20 best-selling drugs directed two-thirds of their TV ad spending last year on just four networks — broadcast titans CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX (source: Kantar Media). 

So…are we telling you to decrease DTC spending? Not at all, we think it’s important for brands to own conversations with PatientConsumers.  But in an era of healthcare consumerism, patient sophistication and media channel abundance, making mass TV the main thrust of an advertising campaign seems like an anachronism of the nineties. Instead, let’s use more digital channels, tools and content in order to drive real engagement, strengthen education and support outcomes.

Lauren Kamuf is an Account Manager at Ariad Health

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