TV Faces Drug Withdrawal

Jan 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Recent decisions to pull ads for several high-profile over-the-counter and prescription medicines off television because of unexpected and unwanted side effects have already resulted in the loss of millions in TV advertising. Now there is mounting concern that as much as $200 million in drug TV ad revenues could be in jeopardy this year, network selling and buying executives said.

The problems first surfaced in September, when Merck pulled its Vioxx product off the market, resulting in the cancellation of an estimated $30 million to $50 million a year in TV advertising. A number of studies surfaced that suggested long-term use of Vioxx could increase the risk of heart attack. There were also suggestions that some drug companies had continued heavy advertising even after studies raised questions about the safety and efficacy of certain drugs.

Weeks later Pfizer pulled advertising for Celebrex, another painkiller of the COX-2 inhibitor type, based on similar concerns. Celebrex had spent $50.7 million on TV advertising, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, from January through September 2004. Pfizer continues to sell the product to consumers.

Network TV advertising executives report there are no cutbacks in advertising so far. That’s because Merck and Pfizer replaced their TV advertising for Vioxx and Celebrex with other brands.

But in the months ahead-starting with second quarter 2005 and for the 2005-06 TV upfront market, which begins in late May/early June-network TV executives are worried these medications and others-may not come back to network TV.

“Eventually there is going to be some kind of hit,” said one veteran network prime-time advertising sales executive. “It’s going to affect [TV and cable] news and CBS properties, because their TV programs are older-[skewing].”

Drug companies’ TV media plans also often target older viewers in daytime syndicated programming and men in sports programming.

“Drug companies’ cutbacks are not what the networks need right now,” said Gary Carr, senior VP and director of national broadcast for New York-based media buyer TargetCast TCM.

Media agency executives have been reporting the current TV market is soft going into 2005, with scatter-market, quarter-by-quarter program pricing below that of upfront pricing set last May.

The major networks already knew 2005 would be a challenging year for advertising by comparison with last year, when the Olympics and political campaigns helped pump up revenues.

Television ad executives are also apprehensive that over-the-counter drugs will also be pulled into the fray.

Bayer AG Group’s Aleve has been linked to similar health problems-that taking the medication yields a higher incidence of heart attacks. Last year Aleve spent $34.6 million across all TV venues, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. Through nine months of 2004, Aleve spent $44.4 million in TV advertising.

For several years now drug companies have had the growing benefit of ever-relaxing advertising rules by the Food and Drug Commission for over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

The Direct Approach

For many years drugs were promoted directly to physicians. That changed about 16 years ago amid a growing belief that more consumers were getting involved in their own health care. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002, direct-to-consumer ads grew from $266 million in 1994 to $2.5 billion in 2000, “largely due to growth in TV advertising.”

The New England Journal study also reported that TV ads grew from 13 percent of DTC drugs ads in 1994 to 64 percent in 2000.

Now doctors regularly have to answer questions from consumers about products advertised on TV. An article in the FDA Consumer Magazine in March 2003 indicated it may lead to more drug use. “About 75 percent of physicians surveyed believed that DTC ads cause patients to think that the drug works better than it does,” said the article, quoting a survey of 500 doctors, “and many physicians felt some pressure to prescribe something when patients mentioned DTC ads.”

TV advertising sales executive have viewed these products-prescription medications, so-called DTC drugs and over-the-counter brands-as a boom to the business. DTC drugs’ media spending, for example, has been growing 40 percent to 50 percent for each of the past several years. The trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America estimated DTC TV and print advertising in 2003 at about $3.3 billion. Until the recent problems, the TV ad industry had expected some $500 million in new TV advertising revenue from new products could be added to that total in the next few years.

Sports TV programming has seen a rush of commercials for pain-relieving drugs as well as for erectile dysfunction medications in recent years. But recently there have been some concerns.

In November Pfizer had to pull ads for Viagra. The FDA believed the spots should have listed its side effects. Pfizer is again running ads for Viagra, but they are now in compliance with FDA guidelines.

In February critics were concerned about commercials for three erectile dysfunction drugs aired-Viagra, Levitra and Cialis-that ran during CBS’s Super Bowl broadcast.

That came in the wake of the outcry over singer Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

During the Super Bowl hearings last year, some Federal Communications Commission members questioned whether these products and other commercials should be allowed to air during the Super Bowl, which is now viewed as family programming. They believed these commercials and musical performances should be subject to penalties and fines.

But FCC Chairman Michael Powell disagreed with that assessment. In a statement about the Super Bowl incident, he said: “Some of the performances were risque and commercials were frequently crass and sophomoric, but they were hardly indecent within the bounds of federal law.” So far, no restrictions have been placed on these products.