Did you ever wonder why new medications so often debut right after awareness of the condition they treat increases? It is no coincidence. The tactic is called unbranded advertising and “disease awareness,” and drug companies spend more on it than they do for regular advertising.
Unbranded disease advertising usually suggests that many more people suffer from a condition than anyone thought—it may even be a “silent epidemic.” It lists symptoms, offers “quizzes” and tries to scare people into “seeing your doctor.” The diseases may not be “made up,” but usually exist in much smaller numbers than is suggested. What disease awareness advertising does not do is tell you the drug that is being marketed for the condition or the company behind the “education.” (Which is why it is called “unbranded.”)
Pharma companies love disease awareness advertising because, unlike direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, risks and warnings of possible drug treatments do not have to be listed. In DTC ads, the risks and warnings are often as long as the sales pitch itself, and sometimes perversely “unsell” the drug even as the viewer is looking at sunsets and puppies.
Still, disease awareness does much of the heavy lifting in today’s Pharma marketing environment. “Disease awareness offers two primary benefit pathways for the brand that successfully engages it,” says a drug marketing article. It “can provide a lead generation source for later branded outreach” and it “offers an opportunity to inspire patients to some beneficial action or actions.”
“Adverse event reporting has been a concern for pharma since the advent of social media,” admits an article on Medical Marketing and Media addressing how the industry faces serious “public distrust” on social media. Rather than get defensive over “adverse reports” from patients or fight back, a marketing expert quoted in the article suggests “the way to earn trust is to show empathy, speak in a way that is credible to the patient and remember that social media is a relationship.”
One of the most dangerous parts of disease awareness is the lack of clear risks and warnings for the drugs that are implicitly promoted. We hear how Pharma valiantly battled patients’ diseases but nothing about the side effects (and prices) of the drugs in question.
One of the best sites to get the other side of the story is askapatient.com, a Webby award-winning, patient-driven site that lets you “Learn from the experience of real people who have taken drug treatments” and “Share your side effects or success stories” free from Pharma influence. Patients can read the thousands of entries about an individual drug, see a summary of effects for a drug based on FDA Medwatch data, and search for specific side effects.
Another site that quickly lets you see a drug’s side effects without Pharma influence and how frequent the side effects occur is HealthBee. “The short history behind the site was an attempt to figure out how prevalent some of the side effects of certain drugs that family members were taking were,” the developers told me. Since nothing seemed to exist and information was “very limited and lacking” the founders created the site themselves in 2013.
Finally, Worst Pills, published by the well respected Public Citizen, is the granddaddy of non-Pharma-influenced drug information sites. For a small subscription fee, patients can learn about the drugs they are taking or might take, as well as reading important reported stories like “Is XARELTO Really the ‘Right Move’ for Patients With Blood Clots or Risk for Stroke?” and “The Best Drug for Severe Acute Low Back Pain.”