An industry's addiction causes pain

Can drug companies educate the public in a way that doesn't hurt their reputation?

Can drug companies educate the public in a way that doesn't hurt their reputation? Consumer confidence in the pharmaceutical industry began to plummet in the mid-1990s, which by no coincidence is when direct-to-consumer advertising of medicines exploded. Marketing executives quickly realized that frequent advertising could drive increased market share.

But in exchange, lost was the “halo” of life-saving science squeezed into a tiny pill. With serious medicine advertised like aspirins or cookies, consumers and elected officials expected the prices to be about the same. 

The implied magic of the prescribing doctor  has been replaced by parody and joke fodder (four-hour erections?). And regulators primarily see the industry (multiple times nightly) as a marketing machine, not a laboratory of miracle cures. (Note to media buyers:  Running back-to-back prescription drug ads on the evening news is great at reaching the over 65 -- around the average age of members of Congress who, along  with their staffs, tune-in to catch-up on the day's political events.)

In a twist, while advertising has severely damaged the image of the industry and is reviled by public health types, it has probably been a major contributor to improved public health. For example, the U.S. experienced one of the fastest drops in cardio-vascular disease at the same time that statin advertising for high cholesterol, and then statin use, skyrocketed.

The cost pressures and declining sales on the industry today should lead to more cost-effective and image friendly marketing strategies to replace advertising. The same funds directed into educational programs and medicine compliance campaigns can produce increased use of the right medicines, increased sales, and increased financial health.  But in times of stress, like a good cigarette, consumer advertising may be too good of a quick fix for the industry to quit. The public oddly enough does benefit. Even if the side effects to companies can be deadly.

Steve Rabin is CEO at Rabin Martin

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