Does Your DTC Message Pass the Consumer Litmus Test?


The consumer has never had such easy access to so much health-related information. Bookstores devote entire sections to health and medicine as hundreds of hardback and paperback books offer the latest information on everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. Magazines, television talk shows, newspaper columns, news reports, bag stuffers from pharmacies, pamphlets from doctor’s offices-all put the consumer atop a surging tide of health information.

And now the Internet gives the consumer access to health-related information from virtually anywhere in the world. At diagnosis of a disease state or initiation of drug therapy, consumers can use search engines to locate hundreds, if not thousands, of sites offering advice, facts, and opinion.

Of course, not all of that information is credible, and some is certainly dubious. But recognized authorities have tailored much of it, especially that found in books and on the Internet, specifically for consumer consumption. Some authors and Web sites have established a reputation for providing accurate, understandable information. In addition, with each passing day consumers become more adept at evaluating and selecting health information from competing sources, weeding out the questionable content from the material they feel they can trust.

“Advertising” Distrusted

That scene presents a challenge for the direct-to-consumer advertiser. DTC messages compete with more than just ads for other products in the same therapeutic category. Increasingly, consumers are also measuring them against the huge array of other sources of information about the product and the condition it treats. That means DTC ads need to compare favorably in the major areas consumers use as litmus tests in deciding which health information to act on and which information to ignore.

For one thing, DTC ads compete against many sources of information that consumers have come to regard as unbiased and objective. They feel that non-DTC information is being presented to help them make potentially important health-related decisions, not to sell them a product. The worst thing that can happen to a DTC message is for consumers to dismiss it as just “advertising.”

Consumers are already highly skeptical about what they see on TV and read in magazines. Consumers know they should take much of what they see and read with a grain of salt or even dismiss it entirely. Therefore, a pharmaceutical company must approach its DTC campaign with a sincere effort to provide the consumer with the information needed to make a realistic assessment of whether a product’s benefits outweigh its possible risks.

A DTC message need not list every last side effect nor dwell on the negative aspects of the product. In fact, such an ad would be more useful to a consumer than an ad that glossed over the adverse effects. Consumers want a balanced, fair presentation of the pluses and minuses so they can make the most informed decision possible about a product.

Clear & Practical

Secondly, some – though certainly not all – of the sources providing health information are expert at providing that material in ways that follow patient education principles. Those sources are understandable and practical to consumers.

The most effective DTC campaign managers take steps to ensure that ad designers write both the front and back of ads in language people can understand. They make sure that the team has totally integrated follow-up collateral materials such as those available through toll-free numbers and health care professionals. The key is to ensure that patients receive not only a message they can understand, but one that marketers reinforce during every educational stage of the therapy-and is PRACTICAL.

If the DTC ad provides consumers with “information”-which is different from “advertising”-a pharmaceutical company will provide a worthwhile service to consumers. It will also reap the benefits of improved consumer awareness and patient compliance. Consumers now demand a higher quality of information. It’s a litmus test that DTC advertisers will have to pass.

Dr. Dorothy L. Smith is a consumer education expert and president of Consumer Health Information Corporation. The full-service company specializes in patient labeling, program development, and strategic planning for DTC campaigns.

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