In a day and age where modern medicine can treat more illnesses than ever before, the pharmaceutical industry is unashamedly putting profits ahead of patients. In 2015, Big Pharma companies spent $5 Billion on advertising prescription drugs directly to American consumers – on TV and in magazines, but also on billboards, websites, Facebook, subway train walls, and even park benches. Three of the top 4 pharmaceutical companies – Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, and Pfizer – spent up to twice as much money on marketing as they did on researching and developing new drugs.
These huge sums of money buy countless TV commercials and print ads that deploy clever tactics to make consumers crave brand-name drugs, all while overlooking alternative options and making light of those drugs’ potentially severe side-effects. The dark reality of healthcare in the U.S. is that Americans spend up to 16 hours a year watching prescription drug ads, while reports and census numbers suggest that many only spend 1 hour per year seeing their physicians.
Increasingly, patients in the U.S. spend more time being bombarded with advertisements that sell medicine than they do receiving medical assistance.
A Closer Look at Big Pharma’s Record Numbers on Advertising
Since 2012, the prescription drug industry has increased its annual spending in marketing from $3.2 to $5.2 Billion. The majority of that money – almost $4 Billion in 2015 – went towards TV advertising. The top 20 pharmaceutical companies in 2015 spent most of their money buying ads on ABC, NBC, FOX, and CBS.
None of this is an accident – drugmakers are aware that the average age of TV viewers has been steadily increasing for years, as younger generations instead turn to digital media for entertainment. On CBS alone, the average age of viewers is 59-years-old; for this reason, the makers of Humira®, a drug that treats arthritis, spent $357 Million in advertising on the big networks, the most of any single drug company in 2015.
Why Big Pharma’s Ruthless Marketing Is Just That: Ruthless
While the bulk of drug advertising seeks only to reach the biggest audiences possible, billions of dollars are ‘left over’ to make ad campaigns that target niche groups. Stat points out how drugs like Viagra®, that cater specifically to men, are advertised in the male-centered readership of Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine, while drugs like Lyrica® (a medication for fibromyalgia) feature women in their advertisements specifically because fibromyalgia predominantly affects women.
Even though such strategies are common tactics in other industries, it’s worth bearing in mind that prescription drugs are fundamentally different from other mainstream consumer goods like cars, at-home cleaning products, video games, and microwavable snacks.
Unlike these other consumer goods, medications can only be legally administered with a doctor's permission – and they must be carefully controlled and monitored. A company like Chevrolet is free to try and convince every last American to buy its cars, however, it’s simply unethical for the maker of a drug like Pradaxa® to indiscriminately advertise to any and all in the American TV viewership. While Pradaxa can help prevent blood clots in some patients, it can also react poorly with many others and cause serious side effects like uncontrollable bleeding or death.
For this reason, most of the developed world prohibits drugmakers from conducting direct-to-consumer marketing. The 2 major exceptions? The United States and New Zealand. Patients shouldn’t be able to “shop” for medications the way they do for cars or a new purse – especially when these medications have potentially severe side effects, and when decisions are informed only after watching a 30-second TV commercial. Prescriptions must be chosen by trained clinicians who know their patient's history and have a thorough understanding of a given medicine's side effects.
How Drug Ads Create a False Sense of Need in American Consumers
Drug commercials have often been parodied for the way they romanticize their benefits while cramming the list of severe and sometimes fatal side-effects into a high-speed, mumbled voiceover. While this particular type of commercial may seem humorous on Saturday Night Live, the strategy itself has extremely dangerous implications for many patients.
Drug TV commercials are troubling enough that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently announced it will investigate the effects of animation and superimposed text on consumers. The FDA’s proposed investigation is based on its concern that, "personifying animated characters may interfere with message communication." This includes commercials like those produced by Otsuka, the makers of Abilify®, an antipsychotic medication used to treat a range of mental illnesses, including depression.
Abilify's commercials are entirely animated, personifying depression as a cute cartoon character. The FDA and many healthcare professionals are worried that such ads mask the seriousness of the drug's side effects and the conditions it treats. In the case of Abilify, those side effects include seizures, suicidal ideation, increase of compulsive behavior (such as gambling), jaundice, and sudden numbness. Users need to know how these side effects may affect their lives – not be distracted by a dopey cartoon character.
A study published in the Annals of Family Medicine found that only 26 percent of drug advertisements educate viewers on the causes of the condition they treat or the risk factors of that condition. Similarly, while 95 percent of drug commercials use emotional appeals to pull on viewer's heart strings, only 19 percent of those commercials mention that lifestyle changes can be made in place of buying prescription medicine. In fact, 18 percent of ads assume that lifestyle changes will be insufficient, further creating the false impression that viewers absolutely need medication. The study concluded that drug advertisements serve very few educational purposes. Instead, they spin a simplistic and dangerous narrative of patients who can only gain control of their health through drugs.
Advertising Jacks Up Costs of Prescription Medications
In the pursuit of greater and greater profits, Big Pharma's advertising campaigns not only prey on the vulnerabilities of sick people, they drive up the cost of prescription medications nationwide. These skyrocketing prices, combined with scandals like Martin Shkreli's attempt to price gouge users of Daraprim®, have made prescription drug prices the number 1 health concern among voters in the current election cycle.
What many consumers don't realize is that the enormous advertising budgets of most pharmaceutical companies contributes to this rise in prices. The problem is so bad that the American Medical Association (AMA) has called for an outright ban on direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs. In a public statement, the chair of the AMA said:
"Today’s vote in support of an advertising ban reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially-driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices. Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate."
Republicans and Democrats alike have blasted drugmakers for raising prices and preventing generic brands from reaching the market. It remains to be seen, however, how much of this is empty rhetoric, as it’s on-the-record that presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz have all accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of “donation money” from these very pharmaceutical companies they swear to bring down.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been among the most vocal and proactive opponents of the prescription drug barons, stating in a recent democratic debate, "In America, we pay – by far – the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs." Sanders has introduced a bill that would let Medicare negotiate with private companies to check drug costs, halt government support for a drug if a company commits fraud, and prevent drugmakers from bribing their competition to not introduce cheaper, generic alternatives – all of which are, sadly, common practices in the pharmaceutical industry.
Both Parties Agree: Big Pharma Must Be Controlled
Maybe the most shocking fact about Sanders' bill is that both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly support it. A survey found that 73 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats support the decision to let the government negotiate with drug companies. Staunch conservatives like Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Carson, and even cutthroat capitalist Donald Trump, have openly criticized the drug industry for its reckless profiteering.
Unfortunately for the GOP, its candidates have had a harder time taking Big Pharma to task. In 2012 alone, pharmaceutical lobbying groups spent 60 percent of their money backing Republican candidates, compared to only 25 percent on democrats – a trend that is unlikely to change.
Nevertheless, when politicians as utterly different as Trump and Sanders agree that the pharmaceutical industry is playing a dangerous and criminal game, it’s time for all sides to come together and make a necessary change.