US Insights

The side effects of drug ads

Elizabeth Wilner

US Editor

TV 06.04.2016 / 12:00

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As ad spending by drug-makers climbs, surveys show physician and patient alignment on impact

As spending by drug-makers on consumer-focused advertising grows by nearly $1 billion per year, Kantar survey research of physicians and patients shows some striking correspondence of opinion about the impact of all the ads.

Consumer ad spending by drug makers in 2015 reached $6.09 billion, according to Kantar Media, after $5.12 billion was spent in 2014 and $4.29 billion was spent in 2013. In 2012, $3.89 billion was spent, representing a much smaller, $400 million increase year-over-year to 2013.

These totals include spending on branded prescription drug ads plus unbranded ads by drug companies promoting awareness of a health condition and directing consumers to get more information, usually leading them to a company website where the prescription drug is offered as a treatment option.

The soaring ad spend has come from two sources. First, a rising number of prescription drugs are being promoted with meaningful ad budgets as evidenced by the count of brands spending at least $500,000 annually: from 147 in 2012 to 153 in 2013 to 184 in 2014 to 215 last year. Second, there has been an uptick in big-budget marketing launches for new drugs which has also boosted category spending totals.

Key Numbers

  • $6.09B total ad spending by drug-makers in 2015

These quick spend and launch figures tell a shorthand version of the pharma industry story:

1)    The massive expense of bringing a drug to market, the pressure to sell it before its patent expires and a generic version becomes available, and the drug-maker’s reliance on racking up a couple of major successes in order to keep the cycle of innovation and new drug development going.

2)    The post-healthcare reform squeezing of drug-makers by insurers and benefits plan managers looking to contain drug costs and steer plan members toward lower-priced generic alternatives, and drug-makers’ strategy of trying to bypass these budgeteers by advertising directly to consumers to create demand for their branded medications.

Physicians. But consumers can’t buy drugs themselves. Enter the prescribing physicians. A February 2016 survey of physicians by Kantar’s Lightspeed All Global found 40% saying consumer-targeted prescription drug ads has hurt their interactions with patients. Among the reasons volunteered by physicians interviewed for the survey:

  • Confused, ill-informed patients requesting the wrong medication for the wrong reasons.
  • Increased patient demand for expensive, often unnecessary drugs.
  • Patients pressuring doctors to prescribe something they know little about.
  • Patients self-diagnosing and telling doctors what treatment they need, when most times they are wrong, which then also wastes time.
  • Patients getting all the wrong information, requiring some doing to help straighten out their thinking.
  • Patients getting hung up on the side effects reported on TV that have nothing to do with them, which creates fear.

Patients. The proportion of patients who see drug ads as troublesome to the doctor-patient relationship is right in line with the proportion of physicians who do. Kantar Health’s 2015 National Health and Wellness Survey (NHWS), which documents patient-reported information, shows 37% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the statement that “drug ads help [them] have better discussions with [their] doctor,” corresponding with the 40% of physicians who say drug ads hurt their interactions with patients.

The NHWS also shows 21% of patients agreeing that ads for prescription drugs help them have better discussions with their doctors. At the same time, the 2016 MARS Consumer Study by Kantar Media Healthcare Research shows 30% of adults agreeing with the statement that “prescription drug ads make [them] more knowledgeable about medicines.”

In other words, looking across the research results, for every patient who feels empowered by the information contained in the drug advertisements, a physician—or two—feels undermined or inconvenienced by them.

Also worth noting, however, is that if 40% of physicians think drug advertising compromises their position or their authority with their patients, per the Lightspeed All Global data, a solid majority of 60% do not find that to be the case. 

Source: Kantar Health, Kantar Media,

Editor's Notes

Lightspeed All Global Doctors Panel mobile survey fielded February 2016 with 100 completed surveys by general practitioners.

Kantar Health’s National Health and Wellness Survey (NHWS) is a cross-sectional, internet-based survey of US adults age 18+. Click here for 2015 methodology and other details.

The 2016 MARS Consumer Study by Kantar Media Healthcare Research can be found here.

Journalists, for inquiries or to speak with the experts, contact us. Follow us @Kantar and sign up for our alerts.

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