It’s regrettable but true that when a little piece of advertising
history was made this summer, it was with a commercial for nail fungal
treatment. Quietly, almost furtively and with none of the hype usually
associated with breakthroughs, the UK screened its first TV ad for a
prescription-only drug. In fact, to be accurate, it was not for the drug
itself - that’s still illegal in the UK - but for the disease.
Mentioning, of course, the drugs company that might help cure it.
The Swiss drugs giant, Novartis, was testing the water after the success
of a similar experiment in the US, where drugs companies have plugged
into a huge source of new customers simply by going over doctors’ heads
and talking directly to consumers about their products.
’Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising is probably the most powerful tool
to stimulate demand that drugs companies have,’ Mike Marino, the chief
executive of DMB&B’s healthcare arm, Medicus, explains. ’It has resulted
in logarithmic brand growth in he US. dollars 100 million brands have
become dollars 200 million brands in a very short space of time.
Novartis is heading down a trail first blazed by the American drugs
giants a decade ago. Frustrated by a bottleneck in converting drugs from
prescription-only to over-the-counter products, pharmaceutical companies
began running advertisements in the late 80s designed to simply alert
consumers to the existence of a new drug on the market which could help
No brands were named. Instead these so-called ’unbranded help-seeking’
ads identified the name of the drugs company, and told consumers to go
and see their doctor for more information. Thus, for example, Eli Lilly
could tell the public there was a new anti-depressant available, but it
could not mention the name, Prozac.
This type of commercial became more and more frequent in the US until
finally, last summer, the Federal Drugs Authority caved in. It finally
admitted that drugs companies might as well mention the brand name too,
at least for a two-year trial period. Thus the first formal change in
drugs advertising policy in 28 years was born, and the floodgates of DTC
drugs advertising were thrown wide open.
One year later, the total adspend in the US on DTC products in 1998 so
far has soared to dollars 1.2 billion.
According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, this is
set to rise by another dollars 2 billion over the coming year. If you
compare expenditure this year to overall spending on prescription,
over-the-counter and DTC drugs advertising last year - which came to
about dollars 3.5billion, according to industry estimates - DTC
advertising has become a major player in a short space of time.
Medicus was the first on the scene only hours after the FDA ruling, with
a commercial for Novartis’s anti-histamine drug, Seldane, which it has
followed up with later work for a similar brand, Allegra, and the nail
fungal treatment, Lamasil.
Others were quick to follow suit. Viagra, herpes treatments and a number
of other products began to advertise on US TV. Now the top ten drugs
companies spend more than dollars 200 million on DTC advertising each
There are still fairly strict rules on the content of these so-called
’branded indication’ commercials. They must be balanced, talk about
alternatives and cover any possible side effects. But doctors in the US
are still understandably resistant to the new type of advertising and
about 50 per cent are still said not to be in favour of the change in
policy, despite the fact that the trial is half over.
Overall, though, even critics are not in doubt that the FDA will
permanently allow DTC advertising at the end of the experiment next
The picture is less straightforward on this side of the Atlantic. Since
the Government must foot most of the bill for any increase in spend on
prescription-only drugs by the National Health Service, it is unlikely
to embrace the idea with any enthusiasm. The Secretary of State for
Health, Frank Dobson, has already gone on the record to say drugs
companies will not be allowed to advertise prescription-only products in
On top of that, the practice is also forbidden by a European Union
And while this comes up for review next year, the preponderance of
state-funded health schemes in Europe makes lobbying for a change in
policy a tough task for the drugs giants. Nevertheless, the pressure is
’If I had to put money on it,’ Sheilagh Kelly, the executive director of
the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, says, ’I would say that if
the directive changed, it would allow member states to do what they
wanted in their own country.’
At the moment, this is restricted to permitting commercials to publicise
a condition, in much the same way as Novartis is doing with its
awareness campaign for foot health. This has been running in the press
for three years, initially in trade publications but more lately in
Novartis is careful to deny the ads are in any way a campaign for a
The group does, however, produce Lamasil, and it does not rule out other
health awareness campaigns in future.
’Should we see an educational need in another disease area, we may
consider supporting a similar campaign - but we have no plans at
present,’ the company told Campaign.
Elsewhere in the UK, a radio campaign is currently describing prostate
conditions and how they might be treated, while in Germany a TV
commercial has recently appeared about the effects and control of high
cholesterol levels. So it seems clear that success in the US has
convinced the drugs giants to take up cudgels over here, with healthcare
advertising executives in the front line.
’I do think it will happen here in the forseeable future,’ Harry Davies,
the chief executive of Leo Burnett’s healthcare arm, Life Brands, says
firmly. ’There will be movements towards DTC advertising and that poses
a number of questions for the European regulatory authorities. Sooner or
later they’ll have to address them.’
WHO IS SPENDING IN DTC IN THE US*
% of total dollars
DTC adspend (millions)
Glaxo Wellcome 22 53
Merck & Co 13 31.7
Eli Lilly 11 26
BMS 10 24
Schering 8 19
American Home 7 17.9
HMR 6 14
Johnson & Johnson 5 12.7
Pfizer 4 10.7
Zeneca 4 9.6
*First quarter spending in 1998