Did you know that the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries that allow drug companies to advertise directly to consumers (DTC)?  In 2015, Drug Advertising in United States in the pharmaceutical industry spent $5.2 billion in direct-to-consumer advertising, up 60% from four years prior, making it the sixth largest advertising category in the United States.

 Where Drug Makers Spend Their Advertising Dollars 

STAT news analyzed market reports from Kantar Media, Nielsen and iSpot.tv to find where drug makers are spending their advertising dollars and found budgets spent mostly on TV, targeting “aging baby boomers watching network shows” and niche audiences.

Data also revealed concentrated spending, which could mean heavy promotion of more expensive drugs or drugs with the most potential consumers, or both.

They found that 25% of the drug industry’s spending last year went towards these five drugs:

  • Humira, treats arthritis and other common conditions
  • Lyrica – treats fibromyalgia, nerve and muscle pain
  • Eliquis – an anticoagulant
  • Cialis – treats erectile dysfunction
  • Xeljanz – treats rheumatoid arthritis

Research showed that the 20 top selling prescription drugs were advertised for a total of $29 million on the History Channel, $12 million on Food Network and $8 million on Animal Planet and that two-thirds of TV spending went to just four networks – CBS, ABC, NBC and FOX.

“People talk a lot about how television viewership is eroding, and traditional media is fading, and that is all true. But the decline is very slow, and so there are still big audiences. And if you’re a pharma company, and you want to reach a lot of people quickly … there’s really no better place to go still than the traditional networks,” said Timothy Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“There’s no doubt that [direct-to-consumer advertising] is now seen as almost a must-do for a drug that wants to be big,” said Bob Ehrlich, chief executive of the consulting firm DTC Perspectives.

Driving Up Drug Prices

Critics of DTC advertising have expressed concern that the practice drives up drug prices as patients insist on brand-name prescriptions they have seen on TV, even if there may be a less expensive or more effective alternative.

The US Department of Health and Human Services reported that prescription drugs “accounted for nearly 17 percent of total health care spending in 2015, up from about 7 percent in the 1990s, due in large part to rising prices for brand-name treatments.”

Pharmaceutical industry trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, says the “ads are useful for informing patients about their treatment options and prodding them to take control of chronic conditions, rather than waiting until their symptoms flare into a health emergency.”

Advertising For “Off-Label” Use

Drug companies have sought approval by the FDA to advertise drugs for “off-label” use, which means to advertise the drugs as treatment for conditions they have not been allowed to treat. It is estimated that about one-fifth of prescriptions are currently written for off-label use, which is legal.  However, it is not legal to advertise for off-label use, which was outlawed by Congress in 1962 after thalidomide was promoted to help with morning sickness in pregnant women, resulting in birth defects.

“Relaxing the current rules would dismantle a legal firewall that has protected Americans from false and misleading drug advertising for more than half a century,” says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project. “The consequences could prove deadly.”

In a Consumer Reports survey of 1,011 adults, they found that 84% of people “don’t want drug companies to be allowed to advertise drugs for a use that hasn’t been approved by the FDA.”

Today, the pharmaceutical industry continues to lobby for off-label marketing.


Drug Advertising United States