How Drug Ads Get This New Product in Your Medicine Cabinet

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug ads please almost everyone. Drug makers sell more product without having to pay reps,* TV, radio and print outlets clean up and the general public gains sympathy for its alleged “GERD” and “exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.”

Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) Drug Ads

(*Before DTC ads, some Pharma reps had their own reception rooms in medical offices with ice water, swivel chairs and laptop ports. Some saw doctors before waiting and sick patients.)

Why do DTC drug ads sell so well? Like consumer-product advertising in general, DTC advertising relies on the time-tested triad of positioning (“the King of Beers “), benefit locked into content (“Healthy Choice,” “SnackWell”) and repetition. Repetition is so important to product recall, some broadcast ads repeat immediately, literally running back-to-back. Consumers think it’s a mistake but it’s no mistake and the very fact that consumers notice it means the repetition works.

Medication ads are so much like other consumer-product ads that the wacky “Can Your Beer Do This?” Miller Lite campaign of the 1990s came back to life to sell the antidepressant Wellbutrin XR. In a glossy, color magazine ad, a young man rows his girlfriend on a scenic lake and lists the benefits of his Wellbutrin XR. “Can your medicine do all that?” he asks.

drug ads - 2 men in a bar. Cartoon by Martha Rosenberg, NewsBlaze
Drug ads – 2 men in a bar. Cartoon by Martha Rosenberg, NewsBlaze

The Use of “Your”

When an ad affixes a “your” in front of the noun it is trying to sell – “your mouthwash,” “your pain reliever,” “your engine treatment,” “your teeth whitener” – it implies that if you don’t already have a mouthwash or engine treatment, you should. What does it say about the saturation of psychiatric drugs in the community that “antidepressants” have joined mouthwashes and engine treatments as something people are assumed to have? “Your” antidepressant?

Another snappy way to sell a product is to elevate it to an experience. Who remembers ads for the “Kodak Moment,” the “Maalox Moment,” and even the “L&M Moment” from years ago? Sure enough, the sleeping pill Lunesta deployed such “experience” advertising with “Lunesta Sleep. Have You Tried It?” in a Parade magazine ad.

Celebrity Pitchpeople

When DTC advertising began, it relied on the product-marketing workhorse of celebrity endorsement. Television personality Joan Lunden and baseball player Mike Piazza pushed the allergy pill Claritin; model Lauren Hutton pushed hormone replacement therapy; singer Wynonna Judd hawked a diet drug; actresses Sally Field and Brooke Shields sold Boniva and Latisse, respectively and skater Dorothy Hamill and track star Bruce Jenner pitched the pain pill Vioxx.

Sen. Bob Dole, once a presidential candidate, hawked Viagra, Dr. Robert Jarvik pushed the best-selling statin Lipitor and NASCAR figure Bobby Labonte endorsed Wellbutrin XL. Drug ads for the masses sold by celebrity marketing.

Withdrawn Drugs

But unlike regular advertising in which a celebrity could taint a product with an ethics scandal or jail sentence (think Tiger Woods), the opposite was occurring: pills were becoming the bad actors, like Vioxx, which increased heart attacks, and hormone replacement therapy, which increased cancer and heart attacks.

So many blockbuster drugs seemed to be recalled, drug makers even contemplated an advertising moratorium for drugs that were under one year old in a “don’t regulate us; we’ll police ourselves!” plea to the government. The proposed moratorium was so short few noticed.

Meanwhile, some celebrity ads drew congressional attention like a Lipitor commercial with Robert Jarvik, MD, the inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart. “In the ads, Dr. Jarvik appears to be giving medical advice, but apparently, he has never obtained a license to practice or prescribe medicine,” observed John Dingell (D-MI), then chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in 2008.

Second Career for Actors and Athletes

Drug makers are still using celebrities to push product. Cyndi Lauper is hawking the Novartis psoriasis drug Cosentyx, golfer Phil Michelson promotes the similar drug Enbrel and Jennifer Anniston promotes dry eye preparations.

Two messages can be gleaned from the continued celeb endorsements. One is that drug makers will provide a second career for actors and sport figures when their first career is over and two: celebrities are the new drug reps. Sorry, guys.

Pharmaceutical pathway - DTC advertising. GAO image.
Pharmaceutical pathway – DTC advertising. GAO image.
Martha Rosenberg
Martha Rosenberg is the Investigative Health Correspondent for NewsBlaze. Martha illustrates many of her stories with relevant cartoons. She was staff cartoonist at Evanston Roundtable.