Opinion: Mills On ... Pharmaceutical ads

For most creatives I know, the idea of working on a mainstream consumer campaign for Viagra is like a wet dream. But why is Pfizer bothering with a pitch at all? Just call Mark Wnek and ask him to reprise all his Peugeot 306 ads.

For most creatives I know, the idea of working on a mainstream

consumer campaign for Viagra is like a wet dream. But why is Pfizer

bothering with a pitch at all? Just call Mark Wnek and ask him to

reprise all his Peugeot 306 ads.



Oh, alright: I know that’s never going to happen. As the leader article

next to this column points out, unless EU regulations about drugs

advertising change, the most likely upshot is a series of ’nudge-nudge,

wink-wink’ symptom ads with no mention of the product.



What does seem remarkable is that despite owning a property with huge

awareness, Pfizer is contemplating something like this at all. That it

is is the result of two conflicting pressures. One is on European state

health systems to reduce health spending - the simplest way to do this

is to cut back on prescriptions for proprietary drugs like Viagra in

favour of generics. This may please the taxpayer, but it isn’t much help

to the drugs companies.



You can tell they’re feeling the pressure by the fact that, so far this

year, we have seen three multi-billion dollar mergers: SmithKline

Beecham and Glaxo Wellcome; Pharmacia and Monsanto; and last week’s deal

between Pfizer and Warner-Lambert. Their rationale? Simple: drugs

companies stand or fall by new-product development, and if they can’t

afford to invest billions in research and development, they might as

well give up. Mergers allow economies of scale to be brought to bear in

research.



At the same time, the days when one blockbuster drug might be enough to

fund the years of research it might take until the next wonder discovery

came around are no more: the switch to generic prescribing diminishes a

drug’s earnings potential.



Ultimately, the only way that drugs companies can combat this is to

bypass their direct customers - the medical profession and the

governments who provide funding - to the consumer. In essence, and it

will accelerate as patients’ knowledge of pharmaceuticals expands (just

look at the profusion of US consumer medical websites), we are at the

early stages of the secularisation of the branded drugs industry. Hence

Pfizer’s plan for Viagra.



Viagra also illustrates another potential trend: drugs that blur the

line between the purely medical and the recreational or lifestyle -

let’s call them ’recreceuticals’. You can quite easily imagine a

situation where the taxpayer-funded prescription of certain drugs is

tightly controlled but, if they can afford it, individuals can pay

privately for branded drugs.



But if they are to broaden their focus from the narrow confines of the

medical industry to consumers, drugs companies have a lot to learn about

marketing. Yes, Procter & Gamble may have called off its attempt last

month to gatecrash the Warner-Lambert deal, but the intention was

clear.



So too is that in last week’s joint venture between the Swiss drugs

company, Novartis, and Quaker.



As Viagra would no doubt like to say in its ads, this could be the start

of something big.



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