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We have all seen the ads: a parent or an employee who complains of fatigue but with the help of a certain drug is able to play catch with the kids in the backyard or get back on the job. These TV drug ads are called DTC (direct-to-consumer) ads and they are one of the top strategies pharmaceutical companies implement for marketing prescription drugs. In fact, drug makers spend billions of dollars on these ads each year. Yet these ads remain controversial among industry observers, especially economists.

Some argue that companies use drug marketing to mainly steal business from their rivals. But others suggest that the ads can genuinely help people as they offer patients important information.

How Drug Ads Work

There are two categories of DTC ads: product claim and reminder. Product claim ads specify the name of the drug, its generic name, as well as the condition the drug is made to treat. Furthermore, the ads also talk about its risks and benefits in a balanced fashion. Reminder ads on the other hand, specify the drug’s name, however they don’t advertise the use of the drug. The assumption is that the public already knows what the drug is used for. There is no risk information in these kinds of ads because the condition the drug treats is not discussed in the ad.

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FDA doesn’t approve this strategy of marketing prescription drugs. It doesn’t approve the ads in advance, however they do keep an eye on the ads to make sure that the claims are not misleading or false. When the ads first appear in public, they are submitted to FDA, which means that there is a possibility that you may see inaccurate prescription ads regarding prescription discount card or a certain drug before FDA has had time to review it and seek corrections.

A Good or a Bad Thing?

Depending on certain factors, this strategy of marketing prescription drugs can either be a good thing or a bad thing.

The Good

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Advertising about a certain prescription discount card or drug can serve a helpful informational role and give potential customers a new awareness of certain medical conditions and the proper treatments available for them. It can educate individuals with a previously untreated or undiagnosed condition and lead them to seek appropriate help. Obviously, anyone watching the advertising must obtain a prescription from doctor first. Apart from this, drug marketing can expand the drug market for a new drug and help make pharmaceutical research more profitable.

The Bad

The potential bad side of DTC ads is that they might serve to persuade existing consumers to switch from one drug or prescription discount card from a certain brand to another. Drug marketing is basically an ‘arms race’ between pharmaceutical companies and drug makers who end up paying for DTC ads in order to defend the market share for their specific product. When the purpose of the ad is served (i.e. the patients are convinced to switch brands), these ads don’t necessarily contribute to patient’s primary health benefits.


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Drug advertising is expensive and drug makers and pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars every year on prescription drug ads. Evidence suggests that drug marketing can lead to increased drug sales. However, as a consumer/patient, you shouldn’t get sold on it. It is recommended that you ask your doctor the right questions about the drug that you are curious about. Even if your doctor agrees that you should try the drug, you should always ask if there are any lower-cost generics or better alternatives available.