Who Says Consumers Can’t Make Decisions?


Consumer activist Ralph Nader challenged product managers and advertising executives attending the February DTC Marketing Congress. “The question is whether the current ads result in better health or more expensive therapies. Right now, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the main purpose of DTC ads is to sell drugs,” he said, adding that since consumers are not drug professionals “they can’t make rational, comparative decisions.”

Are consumers really incapable of making “rational, comparative” decisions about medicines? The fact is that they make decisions every day in areas in which they lack professional expertise. Consumers decide which automobile to purchase, which insurance policy to buy, which security alarm system to install in their homes, and which type of mortgage they want.

What Consumers Need

Few consumers are experts about automobiles, insurance policies, security alarm systems, or mortgages. But they can make capable decisions as long as they are given information they need in language they can understand.

This decision-making ability applies to medicines, as well. In fact, given that no one has a doctor on hand at all times to offer advice, consumers have no choice but to make certain decisions about medicines on their own. That process can be made more effective or less effective depending on the amount and quality of the information available. What consumers need to make capable decisions is the necessary information written at an appropriate reading level and in language they can comprehend, rather than technical jargon–and there is a difference!

The challenge many consumers face in making “rational, comparative decisions” about the medicines in DTC ads is that the information marketers provide has been written at inappropriate reading and comprehension levels. In many cases, the accompanying product information on the back of DTC ads is just too technical. Nader is probably correct that consumers cannot make good decisions based on that type of information.

A Unique Opportunity

With the advent of DTC ads, marketers are giving consumers information about prescription drugs that used to be available only if they purchased the Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR). Because the average consumer cannot understand the information in the PDR, those developing a DTC ad have a unique opportunity to present that information in a way that helps people become more aware of their options. The DTC ad can also have compliance strategies built that help the consumer make the most effective use of the medicine, and which also help sales.

Think back to the days when the prescription was written in Latin so the patient would not know the name of the medication–just 30 years ago. Remember the turf battles that occurred when consumers were first given the name of the generic medicine as well as the brand name? Though each major advancement had to go through a refining process, consumers have certainly been able to handle the information. In fact, they need the information in order to understand how to manage their medicines correctly.

Consumers Hold the Key

Consumers are important decision makers of the prescription drug process. They hold the key to reducing the more than $100 billion in unnecessary health care costs in this country due to patient noncompliance. The major reason for that noncompliance is inadequate provision of information to the consumer.

DTC ads are here to stay. Marketers must carefully develop the information provided in ads as well as the product information so that consumers can use it to make the decision to seek health care. If marketers write DTC ads skillfully with the goal of promoting consumer awareness–and subsequently patient compliance if physicians prescribe the medication–the DTC ad will be a success.

Patient Compliance Tool

It’s true that the company will sell more drugs, but it is also true that many consumers who are suffering because they are unaware there is help for their symptoms will learn that help is available. DTC ads could become one of the best methods of providing information to a consumer because it has the potential of becoming a patient compliance tool and an integrated part of the patient education strategy for a product.

If the DTC ad provides consumers with “information”–which is different from “advertising”–the pharmaceutical company will be providing a worthwhile service to consumers. It will also reap the benefits of improved consumer awareness and patient compliance. The day is near when consumers will begin demanding this higher quality of information from DTC ads and frown upon the ads that are blatantly trying just to sell a drug.

The smart product team will work together to weave a DTC ad that meets the needs of the consumer as well as those of the clinical, marketing, regulatory, legal, and patient compliance team. A DTC ad that addresses the needs of consumers will be a winner!

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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