It’s time for socially-competent US pharma companies to stop DTC advertising

Stanford’s Medicine X is always worth following, and this year’s event (4-7 September) was no exception. The 2014 schedule can be found here, with analytics here, and a full tweet archive here.

This high quality Patients Included event always generates enough memorable conversations and observations for a year’s worth of blog posts, and you will doubtless see scores of publications from numerous sources emerge over the coming weeks.

However, one of the sessions I followed with particular interest was ‘The New Pharma’, which was described in the schedule as follows:

Leaders in the pharmaceutical industry are turning to their end users—patients—to gain valuable insights during the drug and device development process. How can patients work with Pharma to discover innovative health care solutions that provide maximum benefits with minimal side effects? What are the best methods of encouraging and soliciting input from patients throughout the development process? What are  some of the unique ways in which partnerships between patients and industry leaders have led to surprising and effective new treatments?

I’ll leave an analysis of the session itself for another post, but it was the Twitter backchannel conversation that caught my eye. In this post, I’d like to reflect briefly upon the following exchange:

The New Pharma -- backchannel conversation

Click on image to be redirected to the original tweet in context

Is it time for those US pharmaceutical companies that are socially competent to abstain from direct to consumer advertising?

I found myself considering the possibility that perhaps it is.

DTC stigmatises and impedes US pharma

The reasons for this seem logical enough:

  1. DTC is trust corrosive — The first question that needs to be asked of any new promotional activity that pharma undertakes is ‘will this build trust?’ If the answer is a resounding ‘no’, then the proposal should not be developed. DTC advertising has arguably never met this criteria, and certainly does not seem to in the social age. People appear to neither appreciate nor enjoy DTC advertising. Take a look at ‘second-screening’ commentaries on new drug adverts in the US as observers turn to social media to vent their frustration, distrust, and cynicism of the air-brushed reimaginings of what it’s like to live with the condition(s) the drug in question is indicated for.
  2. Advertising budgets could be redeployed in patient-facing contexts — Pharma has had to do more with less for some time, and patient-facing initiatives appear not to have been pursued with either the frequency or the enthusiasm that one would hope the explosion of healthcare conversation on the social web would have prompted. Redeploying resources formerly assigned to DTC advertising could go a significant way towards rectifying this shortfall, and hasten the many socially-enabled reforms that are urgently required
  3. Withdrawing from DTC would send a strong indirect message that the focus of US pharma has changed — The many variants of messages that pharmaceutical companies are fond of adopting along the lines of their being committed to improving health outcomes for people in every geography within which they operate would certainly be more credible in the USA were they to distance themselves from DTC marketing. As Seth Godin put it, “Marketing used to be what you say. Now, marketing is what you do

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that US pharmaceutical companies should pull the plug on all their DTC activities overnight, but it’s certainly time for them to try flicking off the odd switch, and seeing what happens.

In fact, you could say that we’ve reached a position where those pharmaceutical companies who are most at ease in social environments are hindering their progress by continuing to use DTC marketing as the trust-building benefits of the former are diminished by the trust-corrosive properties of the latter.

So, which socially-competent US pharma companies are ready to withdraw from DTC?

With the patient at the centre of its activities rather than the product, Sanofi US is ready, without a doubt.

With its visible presence at Stanford Medicine X, Lilly is ready — and kudos to them for having taken part outside office hours.

With its stated commitment to patient-centred innovation, AbbVie is ready strategically, although tactical evidence of this remains to be seen.

And whilst I wish they’d dial down the self-promotion and focus on sustained, integrated activities that support better patient outcomes rather than pursuing first-in-class activities so doggedly, there can be no doubt that Boehringer is ready, both strategically and tactically.

This list is not exhaustive, of course.

So, the question remains: which brand within which US pharma company will be the first to capitalise upon the first-mover competitive advantage of announcing their intention to withdraw from DTC marketing?

2 thoughts on “It’s time for socially-competent US pharma companies to stop DTC advertising

  1. Interesting. I honestly hadn’t even considered the idea of pharma pulling the plug on DTC. Your argument above is spot on as to why it makes total sense to nix DTC. I was surprised and happy to see Lilly’s active participation in MedX- it was very encouraging. To really “get” it, pharma is going to have to invest in social/real pt engagement as a strategic priority, which could be tough. There will definitely be growing pains for a while (in my opinion). The new regs/rules for pharma social media will also make it extra challenging!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Elisabeth.

    Pharma needs to think long and hard about what ‘value’ means for the industry now, as well as where, and in which activities, it inheres. I think there is a strong case to be made for the fact the ‘value’ of DTC can no longer be manipulated and distorted to the point where it can credibly be said to fulfil these criteria.

    To speak to your final point: whilst they cannot really be said to be a barrier to pharma undertaking anything that it would have considered undertaking on the social web anyway, if anything, such new regulations as have been forthcoming to date should accelerate the movement towards a position where it simply makes no sense to continue to use DTC on the basis that its characteristics are contrary to what the industry is coming to see as its new primary objective: the building of trust.

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