It’s Our Health … And We Want More than Advertising


Two articles came across my desk this week discussing DTC advertising. Interestingly, although the authors have different concerns and approach the issue from diverse perspectives, they share a similar–and important–observation about the value of the “brief summaries” included in consumer ads.

One article, written by a Washington, DC media policy expert, states that “it’s time to remove the brief summary from DTC print ads.” The author argues that FDA’s proposed guidelines force companies to “tie up advertising dollars in page after page of unread small print,” which provides “highly technical information that … consumers find overwhelming.”

The other article, written by a concerned internist from Berkeley, California, thinks that pharmaceutical companies are doing an end-run around doctors with their DTC ads. The doctor warns that consumers are not getting the “full story” about these products because consumers often “fail to read or understand the abundance of fine print with the ads.”

The first article would have brief summaries eliminated from print ads. The second article would eliminate DTC ads altogether.

We Need Information

Putting myself in the shoes of the average consumer, I would have to agree that many of these brief summaries provide little information that consumers can actually understand and use. I can also see some validity in the California internist’s complaint that consumers are being “blitzed” with “glitzy ads” that fail to properly inform them about side effects and other important issues.

However, as a savvy consumer, I would respond: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The problem is not the concept of the brief summary. Rather, it is the failure by some pharmaceutical companies to recognize how important the information in the brief summary is to the consumer–and to the success of the ad.

Consumers will be more likely to make wise decisions about their health if the information in the ad and brief summary is practical and understandable.

We Know Our Symptoms

One of the most important ways consumers can contribute to their health care is to recognize when symptoms require medical attention. The fact is we are aware of our symptoms before the doctor is, but we may not always tell our physicians about them.

If we think there is no treatment available for our symptoms, we may decide it’s not worth spending the money on an office visit. And if we find the condition embarrassing–such as impotence, mental problems, or incontinence–we may hesitate to talk about it. Instead, we endure our symptoms and hope they will go away–or at least not get worse.

DTC ads can make consumers aware that symptoms they have tried to ignore, believing that nothing could be done, are actually the result of a treatable condition. For instance, a person who suffers from frequent headaches may learn from a DTC ad that those may be the symptoms of a migraine and that there is treatment available. Those ads can give us hope. They can help us identify positive steps to take. They can motivate us to talk with the doctor about subjects we find embarrassing.

We Take the Risks

Once we recognize that we have some of the symptoms described in the ad and read that there is treatment available, we turn the page to find more information about the drug. That is when we begin weighing the risks against the benefits. The only way we can do that is to read the brief summary on the back of a DTC ad. That is the marketer’s opportunity to help consumers understand that it’s worth a trip to the doctor’s office to ask if the product is safe and effective.

Bright colors and attractive artwork are not the key to a successful ad. It is the information provided in many brief summaries that is our most accessible source of knowledge to help us weigh the benefits against the risks.

Unfortunately, many pharmaceutical companies fail to take advantage of that opportunity. For instance, in 9 cases out of 10, consumers are confronted with wording they can’t understand and print so small it is unreadable. Too often, perhaps out of frustration, pharmaceutical companies meet the “letter of the law” by simply running the professional brief summary on the back page. That serves no one’s interests. Consumers need a brief summary for patients.

We Need Straight Talk

Don’t entice us with an ad and then scare us away when we turn the page. We become suspicious when the product’s benefits are attractively presented but then find the risks buried in blocks of tiny type and expressed in medical terms most people are unable to understand.

One reason there’s so much fine print is that many companies fail to separate what we as consumers need to know from what we don’t. We want to know how the drug works–but in simple terms. We don’t need the complex pharmacological process.

We also want to know the warnings, but savvy as we are, we need to have the medical terminology translated for us. Studies show that the majority of consumers do not understand such words as “hypertension,” “oral,” or “stroke.” It would be interesting to know how many consumers understand the following statement, now running on the back of a newspaper ad for a new drug:

“In the [DRUG] Survival Study, the number of patients with more than one liver enzyme level elevation to greater than 3 times the normal upper limit was no different between the [DRUG] and placebo groups…”

And what do consumers think when they read this precaution cited in a brief summary?

“Caution is advisable in patients with diseases or conditions that could affect metabolism or hemodynamic responses.”

We Can Make It Pay

The point is this: Don’t waste your money running DTC ads that we can’t understand. The ad can play an important role in helping us make wiser decisions about when to get medical advice–as long as it:

  • contains the information we need
  • is written in language we can understand
  • integrates the front page of the ad with the brief summary

We are concerned about our health, and we want to make the right decisions. For a DTC ad to really help us, both the front page of the ad and the brief summary must work together to provide the information we need.

The ad should be considered as a whole unit, not two separate pieces. The front page of the ad may catch our attention, but we need more than advertising. We need a brief summary for patients that will give us the back-up information we need to decide whether we should make an appointment with our doctor.

What Is an Effective DTC Ad?
  • It’s more than advertising.
  • It’s more than a catchy design.
  • It’s more than a web site.
  • It’s more than an 800 number.
  • It’s more than a TV spot.
  • It’s more than the information kit sent through the mail.
  • It’s more than using “simple” words.
  • It’s content that is practical.
  • It’s content we can understand.
  • It’s content that we can read.

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, July 1998. Copyrighted material; All rights reserved.