Sunday, November 8, 2009

Online drug pushers

Prescription pharmaceuticals are a booming market. In 2008 an estimated $735 billion US was spent globally, with the fastest growth among the merging market places of China, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and South Korea. Prescription drugs are important, and contribute greatly to disease reduction and increased quality of life. There is no question that many areas of the planet need greater access to more drugs to improve population health. But it is also increasingly clear that in the more developed areas of the world, prescription drugs are being over used. This is a problem because not only does it waste resources that could be spent on necessary treatment and prevention activities, but they also present health risks.

The pharmaceutical industry portrays itself as an industry motivated by innovation and discovery, and that the research and development costs associated with new drug development warrants the high costs of new products. Unfortunately, in many cases they lack credibility on two fronts: 1. They don’t disclose how much they actually spend on research and development or on marketing, and 2. There is a growing tendency for the largest manufacturers to simply buy the discoveries of smaller innovator biotech companies, reducing Big Pharma to the role of marketer and manufacturer.

Huge strides have been made in the sophistication of drug marketing, with direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising being among the most controversial. Technically this type of advertising is only legal in the US and New Zealand, but the internet extends the reach of DTC ads to anyone with an internet connection, regardless of prohibitions in their country of residence. Think of any drug name, and add “.com” and you are likely to land on a consumer-focused advertising site that promotes the drug’s virtues. Like any advertising the data presentation is not balanced, and is aimed at selling you a product, not truly educating you about the drug’s merits, dangers, or the condition it is intended to treat.

Traditional advertising is an active process: Marketers intrude their messaging into the magazine, television show, radio station, or subway car where you happen to be, attract your eyes and attention, and deliver a quick, targeted story. The passive online advertising of prescription drugs is different once you venture out of the US market. Pharma needs to deliver two things: Name recognition, and access to information. Companies cannot paste their messages on the sides of busses, so the name recognition is delivered through media stories and product placement in popular culture. Websites provide the access to targeted marketing messages. Certainly not as elegant as a full scale advertising campaign, but likely effective anyway. The genius is that your drug name is being broadcast to customers by sources they truest: A BBC story about swine flu, for example, may mention Tamiflu several times. That’s free advertising for Roche, Tamiflu’s manufacturer. Go to, and the messaging strategy succeeded.

Is this type of passive marketing unethical? Inevitable? Does it even matter? Let us know what you think!

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