Direct-To-Consumer Advertising Works

Angela Federici

Pharmaceutical marketers, like their counterparts in other industries, are under constant pressure to justify their sales and marketing budgets. But in the United States, pharma marketers must also beat back accusations that advertising for their products is ineffective. For example, a recent (September 2008) study by Harvard researchers, which suggested that direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads do not improve drug sales, generated a great deal of coverage and controversy.

Like many others, we disagree with the conclusions of that study. The research used French Canadians as a control group, compared them to English-speaking Canadians who were exposed to some American DTC spillover, and concluded, based on retail prescription data for three drugs, that DTC advertising may not work. Because the study's flaws have been fully explored elsewhere, we will simply reiterate the oft-stated observation that the conclusion cannot be justified by the research design. The research was conducted in a country with a national healthcare system and different drug pricing and prescribing restrictions than the United States. The media spillover was not measured, and no account was made for the quality of the creative or the number of people who saw the advertising that were actually among the target audience for the drug. Therefore, the study cannot possibly shed any light on the effectiveness of DTC advertising in the United States.