New Study Suggests Drug Ads Ineffective, But Expensive For Consumers

Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver looked at sales figures and prices for the blood thinner Plavix after direct-to-consumer advertising started in 2001. What they found was that the campaign was largely ineffective at increasing prescribing rates, but that the price of the drug shot up 12% almost immediately to cover the cost of the marketing campaign.

In other words, direct-to-consumer drug marketing may be both ineffective and expensive for the consumer. For the state as well: the Plavix campaign ended up costing 27 state Medicaid programs an additional $207 million from 2001-2005, say the authors of the study.

Since this is only one drug, the authors note that there needs to be more research to see whether it applies across the board:

“If drug price increases after DTCA [direct to consumer advertising] initiation are common, there are important implications for payers and for policy makers in the United States and elsewhere. Future longitudinal studies should examine other drugs and settings.”

“US consumer ads ‘led to higher drug prices'” [PharmaTimes]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Brazell says:

    Needs a little more research other than just one drug over one small period of time before “new study suggests drug ads ineffective.” Perhaps the Plavix ads were forgetful and ineffective, but generally, everybody remembers key advertisements for drugs, and name recognition for something as ambiguously named as a pharmaceutical drug has got to be worth something. For instance, I can generally look at a name like “Mr. Clean Bathroom Cleaner” and reasonably assert what the product does, but if the names of drugs weren’t so eponymous as they are now with advertising would anybody be able to know what “Levitra” or “Viagra” do simply by looking at the name?

    If they were definitively ineffective, then the drug makers would still raise the price by 12% but just not make any ads for it.

    • Nogard13 says:

      Ah, the difference between Mr. Clean and prescription drugs is that you can walk into any Wal-Mart, Target, or supermarket and purchase it. When it comes to prescription drugs, a Doctor has to prescribe them. So, the “name recognition” thing won’t do a think for consumers. They can market to doctors like they always have.

      I have 3 family members who are doctors and I asked if people come in and ask for drugs by name. All three said that it does happen, but not much more than it did 15 or 20 years ago. Also, most people who ask for drugs by name end up getting a prescription for the generic version. Go figure.

      • Brazell says:

        Well, not to disagree with your general point, but usually they get the drug that their insurer will pay for. Especially with state-run insurers (like for instance the MassHealth welfare option; also being a family member of a family full of people in MA health care) they may only insure the name-brand drug. Additionally, for five, seven, or more years, new drugs do not have a generic alternative… which is usually the case for most highly advertised drugs, so asking your doctor about the name brand in hopes to get the generic really can’t happen.

        • bearymore says:

          There are often generic equivalents for name-brand drugs. For example, doxasozyn is a generic often used for prostate inflammation. While it is not the same drug, it is an alternative to Flomax and, according to Consumer Reports, equally effective.

          • Brazell says:

            Legally, the drug manufacturers have “discovery” exclusivity for up to 7-years, so for many new highly advertised drugs, there aren’t any generic alternatives (although certainly some generics that may offer similar effects). I think it’s something that *should* change with health care legislation, although, it has not been included in any of the major health care reform bills.

    • thisistobehelpful says:

      Marketing is iffy anyway. You can’t really tell what specific ads work even with test groups unless you track every single instance of purchase and where the customer saw the ad. If you went from no marketing to one medium of marketing, there may or may not be a noticeable increase in sales. If you all of a sudden flood every medium of advertising, which loads of drug companies do, then there’s really no way to tell which if any are effective. The last company I worked had advertisers pay for ads in more than one magazine. They would use specific codes and phone numbers per each magazine to see where their sales were coming from. Drug companies don’t do any sort of tracking like that because people don’t buy the scripts, essentially the doctor is choosing what’s being purchased. Also if you market something that’s legally unavailble to the people you’re aiming the ads at that’s just kind of dumb.

      Sometimes the generic isn’t really a deal over the brandname anyway. A 12% jump in prescription cost when it’s already $250 doesn’t make enough of a difference in affordability. I have one prescription that is only $10 more uninsured (no generic available yet) and another one where the generic is only $20 less uninsured. They’re both still well over $200 individually so I can’t say the advertising really hurts the cost of my drugs because they’re already so expensive. BTW I had a large deductible with insurance before so that was out of pocket.

  2. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    I don’t think this applies across the board. Things like blood thinner aren’t consumer/patient desired. It’s not like people say, “You know what, my blood feels kinda thick, I think I should thin it…”. I’d like to see a similar study for anti-depressants and Pica drugs.

    • Coelacanth says:

      Maybe not for the general population, but I think their target audience is for patients who’ve already suffered a heart attack or been diagnosed with heart disease.

      Futhermore, it’s entirely plausible that even if the patient resists “taking yet another pill,” his/her family might be “concerned” and to persaude the person to ask for a prescription.

      • Rectilinear Propagation says:

        Still, I’m betting it is harder to convince someone to start or change a medication meant for their heart.

    • NickelMD says:

      “Things like blood thinner aren’t consumer/patient desired. It’s not like people say, ‘You know what, my blood feels kinda thick, I think I should thin it…'”

      No but people who have had cardiovascular disease events who see those commercials might go to their doctor and ask: “Should I be on Plavix instead of just the aspirin a day I take?”

      Plavix is not marketing to 20-somethings who are healthy as a horse, they are targeting people who already are on less expensive anti-coagulants.

      • Rectilinear Propagation says:

        Yes, which means that they aren’t going to get anyone who thinks they might have a problem asking their doctor for a prescription. If they were selling a drug to treat a condition that’s over-diagnosed or has vague sounding symptoms.

        An ad campaign that can get the general population to say, “Hm, maybe I should ask my doctor if I have X and should start taking that drug” would probably do better than an ad campaign only targeting people with heart problem whose current medications aren’t keeping things under control.

      • thisistobehelpful says:

        But the drug companies are marketing other things to 20 somethings who are healthy as a horse. If you can name a problem you can make up a solution for a problem. Even if that problem didn’t exist before you decided to name it. It’s selling that better/stronger/faster possibility.

    • The Porkchop Express says:

      I was actually thinking I should thin my blood out the other day, I just used booze though.

      But yeah they should look into more than just one drug or even one type of drug.

    • Cant_stop_the_rock says:

      Yeah, I bet advertising helps with erectile dysfunction drugs

    • magic8ball says:

      “It’s not like people say, “You know what, my blood feels kinda thick, I think I should thin it…”. “

      Heh. Clearly you’ve never met my grandmother.

  3. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    Personally this seems like a “duh” conclusion. Who sees an ad on TV and then goes to the doctor and demands that particular product? Only the rich, would be my guess.

    The mast majority of us trust our doctor to know the best medication to aid us, and many of us specifically ask for generic versus name brand. Drug companies should stick to drug reps that visits doctors and hospitals. Piddle your wares to the ones that give the medical advice to the rest of us. It makes it cheaper for me to buy and therefore more likely to buy.

    • Brazell says:

      If I asked you if you had heard of sildenafil, you’d probably have no idea what it is… a pharmaceutical drug, a new type of skateboard, perhaps a brand of car from Bahrain? But, if I replaced the word sildenafil with its marketed name, Viagra, it would be nearly eponymous as the cure for erectile dysfunction. Marketing and Advertising can go a long way.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      I’m not sure why you’re associating this with the rich. You seem to believe that people with money automatically feel entitled to something.

      • Brazell says:

        “You seem to believe that people with money automatically feel entitled to something. ”

        Heh, it’s usually the opposite… ;-)

  4. Kerov says:

    The USA and New Zealand are the only western countries that don’t ban direct-to-consumer drug ads. If the rest of the First World thinks drug ads are a bad idea, kind of makes you wonder why the USA doesn’t …

    In other news, the US pharmaceutical industry has spent $1.6 BILLION on political lobbying since 1998.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      “If the rest of the First World thinks drug ads are a bad idea, kind of makes you wonder why the USA doesn’t …”

      Actually, I think you kinda answered your own question there.

    • thisistobehelpful says:

      “If the rest of the First World thinks [INSERT PROBLEM] are/is a bad idea, kind of makes you wonder why the USA doesn’t …”

      Because we like being special even if it’s not in a good way. :(

      • dragonfire81 says:

        Coming from Canada (where there are no drug ads) I am astounded at the massive drug marketing machine in this country.

        Just this morning I was thinking about health care costs and wondering who is really making money in the health care industry, seeing as how the insurers don’t make a gigantic profit. That led me to the pharma companies and I started to ponder how much the cost of health care (specifically prescription drugs) has been increased since commercial advertising of prescription drugs was made legal?

        I can’t help be but be curious as to how many “health care dollars” are being spend on the multimillion dollar marketing campaigns for drugs.

        • thisistobehelpful says:

          Define “health care dollars.” I believe they make most of their money on holding the patents. And then they make like a second, third, fourth, etc. version of the same drug which each also get their own patent. Do you mean individual healthcare spending? Or insurer spending? (They do make pretty good profits) People like me are basically subsidizing the drugs. The people with insurance get a discount, the people on medicaid/care get a discount, the people who are insured through the state’s program get a discount, the people over the limits for all of those and unable to buy insurance pay full price and offset it.

          It’s actually the same with doctor/hospital visits. Negotiated rate for the insured and then everyone without insurance of any sort basically pays the difference and pays a LOT more. It’s paying sometimes wildly different prices for the same product/service and you can’t shop around all that much and the stuff never goes on clearance. Man, now I really want to move to Canada.

  5. vladthepaler says:

    Isn’t this true of advertising generally? Companies advertise and pass the costs along to consumers; some campaigns are more successful than others, etc.

  6. UFGrayMatter says:

    As a physician, I can’t stand drug ads. Number one, it brings my work home with me! Number two, patients do come in asking about certain drugs they heard on TV, and when you suggest something different, they tend to give you a dirty look. Advertising dollars DOES NOT EQUAL good drugs.

    The prestige and trust that physicians once held does not exist to the same extent any more. It’s a constant battle of what we say vs. what the TV/Wikipedia/neighbor says.

    • QuantumRiff says:

      But come on now.. They are incredibly entertaining.. I love how they try to nonchalantly list their side effects, such as “allergic reactions that may lead to death”.. and things like “May turn your eyes permanently brown”.. (WTF? Turn your eyes brown! I love that longer lashes drug…)

      But really, I feel so sorry for the actors.. I would be hate to be known as the Valtrex girl that talks about living with herpes.. Must be difficult to get a movie gig when everyone recognizes you as the herpes girl!

      • RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

        Yeah, with some of those drugs, I think I’d rather just keep dealing with the disease than the side effects of the cure.

        • dragonfire81 says:

          Agreed. Also coming from Canada, I’m used to trusting my doctor and leaving the medicine and treatment decisions up to him, not a TV ad or Wikipedia. That’s how it should be.

      • Coelacanth says:

        My favourite include a certain class of asthma medications whose side-effects list, I kid you not, “an increased risk of asthma-related death.”

    • AustinTXProgrammer says:

      I don’t think Doctors do as much to earn and deserve that trust as they once did. Sure, it may be low insurance reimbursements and increasing overhead putting more pressure on the schedule. Nonetheless, I find it very helpful to thoroughly research conditions and treatments. I also ignore television commercials.

      I don’t get how commercials still work today. We were all disappointed as children when toys NEVER messured up to the commercials, but yet we still believe this garbage?

  7. SteveZim1017 says:

    but…. but… If they don’t give me the ads then how will I know what to ask my doctor about?!

  8. Red Cat Linux says:

    I’m glad that there isn’t so much prestige/explicit trust anymore. Doctors may be highly educated people, but they are just people. Patients should read and ask questions about their health and discuss it with their doctors and not just accept what they read on TV, hear from the neighbor, or even from the doctor – as the last word.

    Prescription drug companies come from another zone entirely. I never understood the direct marketing myself. The earliest commercials I saw made it clear as mud what the drug was supposed to treat in the first place. I envisioned a flurry of neurotic hypochondriacs that felt the need to “ask their doctor” about whatever they saw an ad for that ever explained what it treated, but they thought they needed (I think it was early ads for Claritin).

    The recent “Oops, we didn’t mean to say what we said, but let’s say it again” ads by the birth control drug company (I forget the name) were just sad. Not only do half the commercials consist of side effects/’fine print’ dialog, but now they are filming retraction ads to clarify their fine print.

    • hotdogsunrise says:

      You’re talking about Yaz. The FDA made them stop their previous commercials and create a new one. They thought the commercials suggested that Yaz could cure PMS and acne.

      • Red Cat Linux says:

        Yep… Yaz was it. I didn’t get the impression they promised more than what any of the other drug ads did, though.

        Does anyone else think that drug companies are not so concerned about curing anything as they are in making treatments for the symptoms of something that can’t be cured? You almost never see an ad for a med that cures you of anything – just treats you for a long long time.

        • hotdogsunrise says:

          There’s no money to be made in cures. The money is all in treatment of diseases. Pshaw! If they could cure someone, they wouldn’t have to keep buying more medication!

  9. PsiCop says:

    Full disclosure: I work in healthcare IT and have worked with a (fairly sizable) number of doctors. From what I have heard over the years from doctors I’ve talked with, I am not convinced that these ads really do anything to get doctors to write prescriptions. Once in a while they get someone who really wants a particular drug, and that can be annoying, but from what they tell me, I just don’t see that these DTC ads cause piles of prescriptions to be written.

    Now, I am fully aware that this is merely anecdotal evidence. I’m also aware of the presumption that the pharma companies wouldn’t collectively be spending upwards of a billion dollars on DTC advertising if they weren’t convinced it works. Nevertheless, this study and my experience tells me this is just wasted money, and they pass along that cost to what is very often a “captive audience” (i.e. people who need the drug, for whatever reason). They have little direct incentive to concern themselves with the efficacy of DTC ads, since they can just pass the costs along.

    It goes against my libertarian tendencies to say it, but we really do need to consider banning DTC advertising. Consumers are not, by law and by definition, capable of deciding whether a prescription drug is good for them or not. (That’s why they’re “prescription” drugs and not over-the-counter.) Therefore, pharma companies literally have no business selling prescription drugs to them. All it does is ramp up costs but provide no tangible benefit to anyone.

  10. friday3 says:

    I don’t think for that type of drug is effective, but I know boner pills make a huge amount of money for selling erections. There is the competition amongst who gives the longer, better hard on, and if you beleive the ad, you will ask the doctor for the one you saw on TV.

  11. whiskykitten says:

    It’s actually interesting to read this today, because just last night as I was watching TV I realized that, where once I may have been interested in learning about ways for me to fight or prevent osteoporosis (and other ailments), the endless and horrifying list of possible side effects is enough to make me rethink any prescription solution I might ever consider.

  12. frodoUnderhill says:

    /disclosure- I work for big pharma as a lowly scientist peon

    Big pharma is not making big profits (at least not anymore). A lot of the money goes back into the very expensive and failure prone research they have to do to find new drugs. All of the easy cheap drugs have been discovered and are being made by everyone (generics are so much cheaper because not only do they not have to find the drugs, but they don’t have to prove they work either, the big pharma already did that for them) I’ll admit the direct to consumer advertising and lobbying pisses me off too, I think more often than not the companies are shooting themselves in the foot (as reflected by all the bad attitudes towards us that show its not working) and wasting money that could be used to lower prices, keep the thousands who are being laid off employed or buy the $500K instrument I need to do my job better.

    • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

      yep, the company i work for puts 30% back into R&D. which is catching us loads of flack from stockholders who want us to put it back to 20%.
      and somewhere between 30-40% goes to programs to send free medication to the uninsured/uninsurable and to pay most of the copay for people with low incomes and high copays.
      i’m delighted with fact that we run no tv spots, no magazine ads. we send direct mailing to people who call and ask and we run a website for each product. and we host events where people who want to know more about the meds or who already take them can talk to experts and meet n’ greet with other folks who have the same chronic illness.
      and every time i see the commercials for a competing product, i feel good knowing that my company didn’t pay for a fancy ad and instead is paying folks like you to find a damned cure.

  13. veg-o-matic says:

    The “higher prices” bit is likely correct, but the “ineffective” bit doesn’t seem to be supported by past studies of DTCA.

    The Kaiser Family Foundation has archived quite a bit of research on the drug market and DTCA specifically. One Harvard study showed that “every $1 the pharmaceutical industry spent on DTC advertising in that year yielded an additional $4.20 in drug sales…”

    The industry wouldn’t have pushed so hard for it from the 1970’s onward if it didn’t work. Perhaps single campaigns aren’t as effective as others, but pharma adverts work beautifully for the drug makers: they normalize consumption of pharmaceuticals as a healthy response to our ailments, just like grabbing that 100-calorie yogurt is marketed as a healthy response to those mid-afternoon hunger pangs…

  14. a2bondfn says:

    As if there weren’t enough reasons to already hate Big Pharma, there’s this too. What I wonder about is how much of their efforts have shifted from getting hot looking sales reps to treat doctors to fancy dinners etc. for advertisements that seem more like parodies of commercials than actual commercials themselves. Don’t get me started on government’s inability to negotiate lower drug prices with these scumbags.

  15. longcat says:

    In other words, increased exposure to drug advertisements may result in pooping your pants. Or a decrease in semen.

  16. axiomatic says:

    Is it wrong that when I hear the music for the Cymbalta commercial I want to start a tri-state killing spree?

  17. BangBangAnnie says:

    ineffective and expensive for the consumer: sounds like some of the drugs themselves, not just the advertising.

  18. activist9 says:

    That kind of advertising shows Americans as hypochondriacs. We can never become sick enough! Seems all men have (the hoax of) Erection Dysfunction, women have “restless legs syndrome,” and all of us are just a heartbeat away from heart attacks!