Consumers Call for Clarity in DTC Ads


A few weeks ago, Prevention magazine published the results of its second national telephone survey of consumer reactions to DTC advertising. The findings continue to demonstrate that the impact of DTC advertising is both significant and growing.

  • 63 percent of consumers said that DTC ads help them make their own decisions about prescription medicines.
  • 76 percent believe the ads helped them become more involved in their own health care.
  • Of the 176.7 million Americans who heard or saw a DTC ad, 54.8 percent talked with their doctor about the advertised medication, and 12.9 million received a prescription for the medication.
Mixed Results

Not all the results are rosy. Consumers gave the DTC ads poor overall marks for clarity about the risks and benefits. The product information, required to accompany each DTC print ad, was widely underused by consumers.

Just over half (54%) of consumers who said they read a DTC ad could even recall “noticing” the Brief Summary. Only 12 percent read the Brief Summary thoroughly.

Only 19 percent of consumers who saw DTC ads thought the medical indications were very clear. That figure shows no improvement from 1998 and is a 6 percent drop from 1997. That’s definitely not a good trend.

So what is wrong? If consumers want more information about risks and benefits, why do they ignore the Brief Summary? My experience with patients is that they fail to understand the information. This is the crux of the problem. Consumers should never be expected to read a Brief Summary. They want information they can understand, and the smart product manager will make that a priority for every DTC ad.

Wasted Money and Opportunity

Considerable talent, effort and money go into developing and publishing DTC ads, so it is ironic that consumers typically ignore the patient labeling that accompanies the ad. What a waste of money spent on ad pages. And what a waste of a prime opportunity to provide consumers with information that would go a long way toward building trust in the pharmaceutical company and loyalty to the product.

The Prevention study found that consumers tend to reward advertisers that do a good job of providing straightforward risk and benefit information. Consumers who believed that the DTC ads did an excellent job of providing information about serious product warnings were more likely to speak with their doctor about the advertised product than were consumers who were unimpressed by the ads’ information.

Advertisers who disregard the potential value the patient labeling has are missing a valuable opportunity. They are already paying for the space; they should put it to good use.

What is a “good use”? In recent newspaper ads for its weight-loss medicine Xenical (orlistat), Roche wisely decided to replace the unwieldy, and obviously unpopular, Brief Summary with a PPI.

Consumers reading the full-page ad in the newspaper find the prominence of the PPI information impressive. There are no fancy photos, yet the eye is drawn to the bottom one-third of the ad, which prominently displays the PPI. The ad gives consumers a simplified explanation of how Xenical works and contains practical information that will help them determine their body mass index and decide, on the spot, if they want to talk with their doctor about Xenical.

What will the ad accomplish other than initial consumer response? It will help build consumer confidence in Xenical. If the medication is prescribed, the ad will reinforce that confidence every time the consumer sees it. The ultimate success will be improved patient compliance.

That ad will be successful. The product information is integrated into the overall ad instead of treated as an afterthought, stuck on another page with a completely different type font and style.

The Prevention study results are clear. Consumers will continue to demand risk and benefit information from DTC ads in language that they can understand. The pharmaceutical manufacturer has two choices.

  • Develop a consumer-friendly version of the Brief Summary that can reinforce the DTC message and be integrated into the entire patient education program for the product?
  • Or continue to run a Brief Summary that is ignored by most readers and intimidates the few who dare to read it.
The answer seems clear.

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, November 1999. Copyrighted material; All rights reserved.