Ever since science took over from religion, doctors and patients
haven’t talked very much. Like the chosen ones of a mysterious sect,
only doctors were allowed to pronounce on the secrets of good health,
while their obedient patients looked on in silent awe.
But all that is changing. The increasingly powerful drugs companies are
forging ahead with plans to speak directly to end users, thus ending
their dependence on contact with doctors.
The revolution began in the US, where a two-year experiment allowing
drugs companies to advertise prescription-only medicines direct to
consumers for the first time, has just ended. It was a phenomenal
success. Agencies found their coffers swelling by a staggering dollars
1.3 billion in the first year from the new campaigns generated. The
medical establishment was unperturbed, and the drugs companies
discovered that their audience was not a few fusty physicians fumbling
through a trade magazine, but rather anyone with money to spend.
On this side of the Atlantic, the revolution has been more modest.
Companies are not allowed to advertise prescription-only drugs direct to
Instead, companies advertise a medical condition and refer consumers to
their doctors. Called symptom advertising, it’s an effective back door
into advertising prescription-only drugs. Many people put up with
symptoms that they don’t realise can be fixed by medication. By telling
them that they can be helped, and by directing them to their doctor,
companies can, without mentioning a single brand name, raise sales of
Of course, it may only be worth doing if a company has the market leader
or sole drug in the category. And it has to be done carefully because of
the myriad of laws governing advertising drugs in the UK.
The first campaign of this type in the UK raised awareness of nail-bed
fungal infections. This was created by Herman Beasley last year, and
backed by Novartis, which produces treatment for such infections. The
second was more mainstream in character, crafted over a number of years
by Saatchi & Saatchi for Pharmacia & Upjohn. A few weeks before the
awareness campaign on poor bladder control broke, Saatchis contacted the
medical profession, making sure doctors knew about Detrusitol, which, in
some cases, can help to control it.
’DTC handled wrongly can be a publicity nightmare. You need to get
healthcare professionals on board: that’s a lesson we learned from
similar campaigns in the US. If you push people into doctors’ surgeries
demanding a particular drug, you will get a backlash,’ Paul Tredwell,
managing partner at Saatchis, explains. So, phase one involved talking
to the doctors, and it was only phase two that launched to the public.
This took the form of prime-time TV ads and a UK magazine blitz
referring people to their doctors, with an 0800 number for more
information. Less than three weeks after the campaign broke, 24,000
calls had been received on the hotline and a quarter of these people
filled in questionnaires about their condition.
Next into the DTC fray is Procter & Gamble, which is joining with the
National Osteoporosis Society to run a campaign about this debilitating
condition, which occurs in as many as one in three post-menopausal
P&G manufactures Didronal, a drug that can relieve the condition.
Meanwhile, Pfizer-owned Viagra is in talks to find an agency for a
Europe-wide ad campaign.
There’s still a long way to go, however, before symptom campaigns become
the genuine advertising of prescription drugs. An EU directive forbids
such advertising, and is not due for review for some years. But,
although the battle is far from over, drugs companies have won some
minor skirmishes in the war to talk directly to consumers.
Take the British Medical Journal website, for example. Initially the
Medicine Controls Agency gave the website the go-ahead. The BMJ reasoned
that anyone can wander into a public library and pick up a copy of the
BMJ with all its drugs advertising anyway, and the MCA gave way.
However, it then reversed its decision, telling the BMJ that its website
contravened the code of practice because a member of the public could
stray on to the site.
The second fight is not over yet. It involves NHS Direct, an initiative
aimed at taking pressure off primary healthcare services. Instead of
calling 999 for non-emergencies, for example, members of the public can
call NHS Direct or visit the website and get advice and reassurance
about their complaint from professionals.
But advertising this service has been a problem because of an arcane law
designed to prevent ’quack’ doctors from taking advantage of the sick.
The radio and TV advertising codes forbid advertising a service offering
advice or diagnosis of a medical condition. Discussions are in progress
and the regulatory authorities are said to be close to reaching a
Finally, with all this activity by drugs companies, TV stations, notably
Flextech, are considering the launch of TV channels dedicated to
Such a channel would run information on health, funded by advertising
from drugs companies. To the medical establishment, this is nothing
short of heresy. To the drugs companies and healthcare agencies,
however, it will be just one more step on the way to finally meeting