Saturday, January 19, 2013

Drop TV Ads, Says John LaMattina, Former Pfizer President of R&D

It's been a long, long time since anyone has seriously suggested a "moratorium" or complete halt to direct-to-consmer (DTC) drug TV advertising in the U.S. But that's just what was suggested by John LaMattina, former Pfizer president of Research and Development. In a Forbes opinion piece titled "Pharma's Reputation Continues to Suffer -- What Can Be Done To Fix It" (find it here), LaMattina offered 4 "fixes," including "Drop TV Ads" as #4 on his list.

The other 3 fixes LaMattina put on a par with dropping TV ads are
  1. Transparency of payments to healthcare professionals, 
  2. Transparency of clinical trial data, and 
  3. Stop the illegal detailing of drugs 
These fixes are not nearly as controversial as #4. #1 is already being dealt with thanks to the Physician Sunshine law -- although complete implementation has not yet occurred (read this). #2 is also in the works, although there seems to be some push back from the industry (see "A Voluntary Industry Code For Releasing Trial Data?" here). #3 is self-evident; I mean "duh!"

Drug TV ads, says LaMattina, "may be doing more harm than good. The litany of side-effects that must be discussed is numbing and probably doesn’t provide a sense of the true risk-benefit for that medication. Plus, the public views these ads to be a waste of funds that could otherwise be invested in R&D or in lessening drug costs."

The last time I wrote about banning drug TV ads was in August 2009 when I wrote a piece that appeared in the NY Times (see "The New York Times, DTC, and Me"). In it I said "the industry pushes the envelope by overstating benefits and playing down the risks. That has got to stop."

LaMattina is also the author of a new book published by Wiley: "Devalued and Distrusted: Can the Pharmaceutical Industry Restore Its Broken Image?" You can get a Kindle edition on Amazon for an astounding $23.99 ($29.95 for the paperback version)! This book, IMHO, is not likely to get a wide readership among the general public for that price! Luckily, LaMattina sent me a review copy at no charge.

In his book, LaMattina closes the section on dropping TV ads with this paragraph:

"If the pharmaceutical industry is really concerned about being better valued by the public, it might do well to drop TV ads completely. However well-intended they are, the negatives have always [my emphasis] outweighed the benefits. If the members of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association agreed to halt TV ads, my guess is that the public's response would be overwhelmingly positive. My sense is that they wouldn't miss the commercials either."

But I know a few influential people who WOULD miss the ads: pharmaceutical brand managers and their DTC advertising agencies. After all, these ads generate a 2:1 return on investment (ROI) according to DTC experts (read this, for example) and the agencies surely enjoy and, in these trying economic times, need their portion of the $2.4 billion that LaMattina says is spent on TV ads each year by the industry.

So will pharma ever "drop" TV ads? It's like the old Woody Allen joke: a guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken. Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs!

P.S. In his book, LaMattina admits he was part of the problem when he was employed by "Big Pharma." "I was sympathetic to these ads," he says. Perhaps LaMattina could have spoken out against TV Ads when he was president at Pfizer, but as an R&D person it wasn't his place to do so. However, at least ONE currently employed Big Pharma executive has suggested that pharma marketing spending has gone too far, at least relative to R&D. In a video interview with Wall Street Journal, Joseph Jimenez, the CEO of Novartis, said "The industry needs to spend more money on R&D and less on sales and marketing" (read more about this here).

I'll have more to say about LaMattina's "fixes" in a review of his book to be published in an upcoming issue of Pharma Marketing News.

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