Big Pharma at the Trough of Advertising

By Richard Campbell

One of the mysteries of the current day health care scene is the role of advertising in big pharma. By some estimates Americans spend over 300 billion dollars a year on prescription drugs. It’s big business. It was pointed out by Ana Swanson of the Washington Post, that the research firm Global Data did a study that showed in 2013, 9 out of 10 of the biggest pharmaceutical companies spent more on advertising than on research. If this is true, the level of corporate hucksterism has reached an all-time high in that industry. In the late nineties when restrictions were lifted on advertising prescription drugs, the flood gates were opened. We see the results today.

One might ask what these often embarrassing, mostly idiotic ad schemes we see on TV are all about. After all, when we go to a trusted physician for medical care, it surely must be understood that they know after years of medical school and practice, what prescription to write out for whatever ails us. But even more offensive, in the same article is this stunning quote: “The biggest spender, Johnson & Johnson, shelled out $17.5 billion on sales and marketing in 2013, compared with $8.2 billion for R&D. In the top 10, only Roche spent more on R&D than on sales and marketing.” In short, all that money that could have gone to research went to brain washing the American public. We doubt there is any positive effect from all this nonsense. Why? Because your doctor prescribes the medicine to you, not the other way around.

We have to wonder, what do they think they are marketing? It often looks like they are selling lifestyles. Then there are the stupid names, like the erectile dysfunction drug, Cialis, or see Jenny or see Betsy. What a disgrace. The ADHD drug names like Concerta, and Focalin vaguely suggest that they help sufferers work in harmony because they become focused- but do these made up names really matter to the physician? What matters is that class of drugs has grown 8 percent a year since 2010. The constant marketing of drugs to the American consumer has shown its negative effects.

Are today’s parents making decisions based on ads for ADHD drugs? We hope not. But according to two sources, the projected growth in sales of them is going up to over 17 billion by 2020. One in seven kids in the US is diagnosed with this problem, but many experts agree they are being over diagnosed and prescribed. Parents who only want the best for their children are sometimes roped in with slick advertising. As kids in ads have their pictures taken with A’s and B’s on their homework, it holds out hope for an easy way out of complex emotional and academic problems. College students routinely get these drugs from friends who have prescriptions. One study of a small liberal arts college in New England found that one in three students had abused Adderall during their college careers.

The selling of the medications in general categories is even more specious, as a company mentioning a class of products, without mentioning the brand, doesn’t have to read the long list side effects. It’s a copywriter’s dream come true, as this gives them more time to invent silly and annoying scenarios to be “memorable”. One wonders if advertising feeds the proliferation of more varieties of the same drug. The sheer number (hundreds) of anti-depressant medications on the market is itself a depressing statistic. Studies on the opioid crisis revealed the feeding frenzy on pain killers had an advertising angle. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma announced last week, it will stop marketing its drug to doctors. Maybe the light is finally turning on in the heads of executives in this industry.

We are not saying these medicines don’t have value in the hands of a good physician treating a patient, but we question all the peculiar ads that appear on TV, in magazines, and elsewhere, and the relationship between those ads and increased use. The big clue to how corrupt the current practice is the many times the ads repeat terms like, “tell your doctor”, or “ask your doctor”. If ever there was a restriction that needs to be re-instated, it is the one relaxing ad rules regarding serious medicines. Our opinion is your doctor and you can make an informed decision about prescriptions without any help from Madison Avenue.

Jeanne Rooney

Jeanne Rooney is the Editor in Chief for South Boston Online.