Search the Site

Could You Live Without Direct-to-Consumer Ads?

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Miriam Shuchman writes about the movement in Congress to allow the FDA to block direct-to-consumer ads for new drugs.

“There is popular support for a ban: in a telephone survey conducted in March 2007 by Consumer Reports, 59% of respondents ‘strongly agreed’ that the FDA should ban advertisements for drugs that had safety problems,” Shuchman writes. “But some legal scholars believe that such a ban would be overturned by the courts as unconstitutional.”

There is a big difference, of course, in ads for “drugs that had safety problems” and all the rest. Still, here is a look at the increase in DTC advertising in recent years:

I was thinking about DTC advertising a few weeks ago when I was in Madison, Wisc., and visited an exhibit on the history of toys at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. The exhibit made the argument that the advent of television, and particularly TV advertising, is what turned the toy industry into a juggernaut. Why? Because, for the first time, manufacturers could market their goods directly to the customers — that is, to children. Mattel was apparently the first company to grasp this phenomenon, and saw its sales increase from $6 million to $49 million in the space of six years. (I have no idea how accurate this information is, nor do we learn how much money Mattel spent on its TV advertising; but still … the DTC point seems valid.)

Almost every knowledgable person I know in the healthcare field, when talking about high healthcare costs, points to the advent of DTC advertising as a major factor, since it is so good at driving consumer demand. These same people universally bemoan the fact that this demand is not only costly but, from a medical standpoint, often counterproductive.

I do know of some people, however, whose lives would be gravely endangered if DTC advertising were restricted or limited: TV executives. It is no secret that the networks have come to depend very heavily on pharmaceutical ad dollars, particularly the evening news broadcasts. I remember seeing a list not long ago of the top ten advertisers on the three big networks’ nightly newscasts. Twenty-nine out of the thirty advertisers were pharmaceuticals; the 30th was for an affordable car — I think it was a Hyundai.