Is Your DTC Strategy Missing the Mark?


It may seem obvious to say that consumers need to be able to understand DTC advertising, but it appears some pharmaceutical companies are missing the point. For these companies, the consumer is the overlooked factor in the direct-to-consumer equation.

Consider FDA’s recent action regarding the lipid-lowering drug Lipitor. FDA pulled the plug on the 60-second television commercial for the product, complaining that “this language is technical, not in consumer-friendly language, and therefore, not likely to communicate to consumers that the relationship between Lipitor’s lipid-lowering effect and its effect on cardiovascular disease or survival is not known…” Discontinuation applied to all other promotional materials related to the ad, as well.

The company’s cost in terms of time and money spent on the commercial and related materials is tremendous but calculable. On the other hand, the cost of resulting consumer confusion is a big unknown. The company now faces the challenge of working to restore brand loyalty for Lipitor without confusing consumers even more.

Lipitor’s manufacturer is not alone. Letters to pharmaceutical companies from FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications are rife with complaints about how many companies’ DTC ads fail to meet the consumer’s needs. “Information not presented in a prominent and readable manner” and “use of confusing language and technical terms often misunderstood by the public” are just two of the specific failings.

Straight Talk

What does it mean to “meet the consumer’s needs?” Obviously, the strategy for DTC advertising involves more than translating medical terminology into lay language or creating attractive design. It comes down to knowing what is important–and what is not–at least in regard to the particular audience the DTC message addresses.

As a consumer, I want the company to develop its DTC message so I can readily see it is speaking directly to my health concern. That requires the company to lay out an effective and integrated strategy in advance, before it spends money on advertising that fails to work.

Remember, your DTC ad must do four things for it to be effective:

  • Catch consumers’ attention.
  • Be understandable.
  • Ensure that the benefits make sense to the average consumer.
  • Convince consumers to take the next step and ask their physicians about the product.

Only solid planning will result in a DTC ad’s ability to successfully walk the consumer through those four steps. If a company really wants consumers to respond to the message, it must consider the following points relating to consumers’ needs as it plans its DTC strategy:

  • Give us the information we want to know
  • Make sure the information is practical.
  • Write the information in language we can understand.
  • Use design that really “means something” to us.
  • Address the daily problems we have trying to take our medications correctly.
  • Be consistent in all your messages for this product–even after it is prescribed–to eliminate confusion when we receive follow-up DTC collateral materials in the mail or get patient education materials from health professionals.
  • Be smart–tie in your DTC message with your refill compliance programs.
Power of Perception

Some companies are really trying to develop DTC strategies that address those consumer needs. In the real world, however, there is always a struggle over how to balance the needs of the consumer with the company’s marketing and regulatory needs.

For example, an antibiotic currently on the market offers the advantage of just once-a-day dosing for five days. That is a wonderful hook on which to hang the DTC message–and it exactly answers the consumer’s question: “How will this product make my life simpler?” However, instead of showing how easy the product is to take, the DTC ad focuses on how complicated it is to take competing antibiotics. The ad shows a woman staring in horror at dozens of large, distasteful-looking yellow pills, which the wide-angle lens distorts into appearing even bigger and more distasteful. The idea is that the woman does not have to put up with the “horror” of having to take all those pills over the next two weeks.

As good as the idea may have seemed, this is what the consumer sees on this page–and in precisely this order:

  • The horrified look on the woman’s face.
  • The expanse of revolting-looking yellow pills laid out before her.
  • The product name in large type at the bottom right of the ad.

The intended message is that the product saves the consumer from having to take those horrible yellow pills. The actual message is that for some reason a pharmaceutical company is advertising horrible yellow pills. The company was on the right track to a point, because it was trying to address the critical issue of patient compliance. The problem is that the concept is based on a failure to understand what consumers want and how they think.

At the outset of the strategic planning process, step back and look at the message you want to convey as though you were a consumer reading it in a magazine. Don’t get caught in a trap where the marketing and advertising needs overpower the consumer needs and you end up with a DTC ad that misses its target–your consumer audience! We know the day-to-day problems we face with our medications, and we are becoming more savvy about what we need to look for in a DTC ad.

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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Published in Pharmaceutical Executive, February 1999. Copyrighted material; All rights reserved.