I personally favor a ban on direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads by pharmaceutical companies. They are designed by advertising professionals to manipulate consumers at a time when many are vulnerable. I also don't like the idea of patients pressuring their physicians to prescribe a particular drug. A recent article suggested that pharma is "behind" in its digital marketing expertise and such a ban could then have negative consequences for them (see: Ban on consumer ads could make pharma's digital shortcomings more costly).
The American Medical Association (AMA), a powerful lobby that represents more than 200,000 doctors and medical students in the United States, is calling for a ban on direct-to-consumer ads that pitch prescription drugs and medical devices (see: AMA Calls for Ban on Direct to Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices). Noting that the US is one of only two countries in the world that allow such ads, the AMA says that "direct-to-consumer advertising...inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate." The AMA's stunning reversal...arguably couldn't come at a worse time for pharma companies. Many of them find themselves under increased scrutiny over prescription drug pricing and concerns around anti-competitive behavior.
At the same time, the industry as a whole has been leaning heavily on advertising. Citing research from Kantar Media, the AMA pointed out that drugmakers are now spending $4.5bn a year on ads, a figure that has increased by 30% in the past two years alone. With pharma out of favor with consumers and politicians, a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising seems possible, and if one was implemented, pharma companies would face significant challenges marketing their wares. Unfortunately, pharma's digital efforts have been falling short. According to recent research by Deloitte Consulting and the Gerson Lehrman Group, pharma companies are largely underinvesting in digital outreach to physicians. They invested just $1.4bn in online advertising last year, just a quarter of what they spent on ads overall and an amount that far lags other industries such as retail and financial services. The result: there is a significant trust gap with physicians, 75% of whom lack trust in the information provided by pharma.
Here's some background about pharma companies and their previous marketing efforts. In the past, pharma companies would market directly to physicians with so-called detailers -- sales reps who would call on physicians in their offices (see: As Physicians Lose Clout, Pharma Companies Redirect Sales Calls). This program started to get too costly so pharma turned, in part, to e-detailing and e-sampling which is basically digital marketing How E-Detailing May Lead to Greater Knowledge by Physicians about Drugs; E-Sampling: Another Blow to the Future of Pharma Sales Reps). As more physicians were employed by hospitals, some of the detailers were repurposed as "physician liaisons" who called on hospitals (see: Physician Liaisons: Former Pharma "Detailers" Now Marketing Physician/Hospital Services).
Concurrently, the pharma companies also turned to DTC ads, often finding them more effective than physician calls and thus an important marketing channel. Some of the larger pharma companies now spend more on marketing than on R&D (see: Confirmation that Big Pharma Spends More on Marketing than R&D). Another marketing channel for the companies, social media, is being scrutinized by the FDA because of the potential for consumers to receive misinformation about drugs (see: FDA Issues Warning Letter to Drug Company about Use of Instagram; Pharmaceutical Companies Continue to Experiment with Social Media; GlaxoSmithKline Mines Social Media for Information about Adverse Drug Events).
I personally favor restricting the marketing activities of pharmaceutical companies to web sites and ads in medical journals that would be restricted to pure science accompanied by links to the relevant medical literature. I would also encourage and fund high quality web sites that address key therapeutic issues such as the substitution of generics for proprietary drugs.