July 25, 2002

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if the newspaper guy went crazy and complained about too much advertising? I like to eat so I won't make that complaint here, but a recent story in the national media is criticizing the nation's pharmaceutical companies for spending too much of their income on advertising and marketing.

The complaints came following a study by a nonprofit healthcare advocacy group, Families USA, which revealed that top U.S. drug companies are spending nearly double the amount of resources on promotion of their products compared to spending to actually develop the medicines.

So why is this newsworthy? Because these same big companies have been fighting the inclusion of cheaper, generic drugs in federal and state programs assisting the elderly and poor afford prescription medicines. Their argument is that lower prices and competition from these generic drugs would dramatically reduce the amount of money the companies could spend on development and research to find new and better drugs.

The study argues that these big companies have the best of both worlds. The government provides patent rights, protecting them from competition (for a limited time). Then they use, free of charge, research paid for by taxpayers, through the National Institute of Health to help develop their drug products. So if they don't have to worry about competition, and they have free research, what else can they do but spend lots of money to promote their product?

I'm going to defend the advertising mediums, at least as far as my own industry, and let you know that newspapers have not been a favorite avenue for the pharmaceutical companies (thank goodness otherwise we would have full page Viagra ads all the time). As a matter of fact most of the market and promotional dollars are being spent on free drug samples sent to hospitals, clinics and doctors as well as other marketing and promotions targeted directly at physicians to get them to use the particular drugs in their practices. Of course the drug companies will argue that a majority of the free drug samples (as much as half the marketing budgets of many of these companies) is used by doctors to help needy patients.

So don't be mad at the newspaper the next time you get your medicine bill. More likely it boils down to whether or not the drug company spent big bucks to invite your doctor to some convention on a tropical island. Apparently junkets like this help entice physicians to prescribe the name brand product instead of the less expensive generic version, which provides the same results at a much lower cost. I don't think this is a big problem in Scotland County. I suspect the drug tycoons go after the big fish with larger markets. That's too bad for our local doctors, because I have confidence in their integrity as well as their common sense. That means they'd be smart enough to take advantage of the free trip or other marketing schemes but would still make the right decision for their patients regarding what types of drugs to prescribe regardless of the big marketing dollars.

So the moral of the story is… what? Buy generic drugs? Big business is bad? Or you can make studies say whatever you want them to say?

I'll put a positive spin on this editorial and say the moral of the story is marketing pays. Why else would we pay twice as much money for basically the same thing? We buy the expensive stuff instead of the generic brand because of name recognition and product familiarity, two things that are produced by good marketing, which is the equivalent of good advertising. I'd bet the pharmaceutical companies would tell you that advertising doesn't cost, it pays. Maybe the newspaper industry should spend some of our research and development money to get the drug companies to market our advertising.

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