Doctor Doctor: The nuances of advertising drugs

Category: Marketing Strategies & Tips

We’ve all seen them, those ads proclaiming that they can get rid of hair loss, where the list of potential side effects sound terrible. Or the ones where they promote that this one pill is the cure for erectile dysfunction, only it turns your hair a flaming red. These types of advertisements, known as direct-to-consumers, have been in the spotlight, with many wondering if their side effects outweigh the benefits, much like the drugs they promote.

Direct-to-consumer or business-to-consumer (B2C) advertising for healthcare products has been legal in the United States since 1985, and currently they are only legal in the US and New Zealand, of all places. Twenty-two out of 27 EU nations do not support information to patient advertising, which is what these ads do: give information directly to the consumer rather than to the medical professionals. This is like auto parts manufactures advertising tiny screws that hold a piston together directly to the consumer rather than to the mechanic that will know even if the consumer needs that specific part and what a piston even is! Marketing pharmaceuticals in the United States is a multi-billion dollar business and that number is only expected to rise in the next decade.


There was a time when pharmaceutical ads were designated solely to the back of medical journals, hoping to appeal to doctors and healthcare professionals. And while major pharmaceutical companies still spend billions of dollars marketing to doctors, they now are targeting consumers, with all commercials and advertisements ending in the same catchphrase, “Ask your doctor if this drug is right for you.” That is the sales pitch – to start a conversation with your doctor to find out if that specific drug is right for you.

From the consumer’s perspective, B2C advertising can be a benefit, as it takes out the middleman. Instead of having a doctor prescribe what they think is best for you, this puts information directly in the consumer’s hands. They are the ones enduring the symptoms and health issues and knowing that there are specific drugs that can help ease their pain puts some of the power in their hands.

Source: Last Week Tonight on Youtube

On the flip side, B2C advertising can cause a lot of confusion and be quite convincing. When John Oliver broke it down in one of his infamous rants, he reported that 70 per cent of Americans are taking at least one prescription drug while 50 per cent were taking two or more. With 70 per cent of the population thinking that they need prescription help, the obvious question is how many of these medications are needed for legitimate problems and how many are used simply because of a rather convincing advertisement that aired during The Big Bang Theory.


Because the pharmaceutical industry is worth billions and holds substantial power and influence, it makes sense that it should be regulated in some way, including the marketing methods used. While some argue that it’s just business, and to not limit capitalism, there are some questionable. What better example is there that the industry might need a little regulation than Martin Shkreli, the millionaire who bought the rights to a medicine needed to combat AIDS, who then increased the price from $13.50 to $750 per pill overnight. This is just the most recent and famous example of insane price increases for pharmaceutical drugs. If you need a reason to get depressed to then take a drug to help, stories of price increases for drugs that people actually need are sure to make you reach for the Prozac.

Last month, the American Medical Associations House of Delegates voted in favour of banning direct-to-consumer advertising for big drug companies. AMA Board chair Patrice Harris said after the vote, “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.” By their estimates, marketing pharmaceuticals is a $4.5 billion dollar industry.

These ads are everywhere. I’m writing this while watching Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and the last commercial break featured three advertisements for different drugs to cure different ailments. If they are that abundant during a movie made for children, their infiltration has gone far enough.

While there currently is no ban in place, there are talks as to how restricting these ads would work, including a tax to air these ads and a television control device that would block these specific ads, if consumers wanted to do so. The issue with banning these types of advertisements outright is that advocates for the ads could claim banning the ads is a violation of freedom of speech, which sparks a whole other debate.

It is unclear how this debate will settle, one thing is for certain – the marketing strategies behind pharmaceuticals and health care products is an interesting study into the power and influence of marketing. They are selling health, which is something that is constantly in demand. There are people who do rely on drugs to enhance the comfort of their lives, but there are others who are convinced they need help when they might not. Instead of taking a pill, it may be as easy as taking a walk in the sun, eating a pile of carrots or looking at a few nudie pictures to get the little guy active again. Maybe ask your doctor about that.

Header Photo: Taylor Jacobs via

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Faye Alexander

Faye Alexander loves to type, scribble and scrawl because words are her favourite play things. As an editor, writer and social media professional, she brought her skill-set to the evolving world of Marketing. She has a passion for inciting meaningful dialogue through crafted content and opening doors to two-way conversations. Some of her favourite words include, but are not limited to: feminism, effervescent, spoon and malarchy.

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