August 2005 - Per Inquiry

When the Cure Is Worse Than the Disease

With several broadly distributed prescription drugs now being taken off the market for adverse effects, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a doctor, is asking for a voluntary moratorium on direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. You know, the ads that feature lovely visuals such as puppies jockeying for position in a basket or vibrant flowers opening in time lapse, while the audio warns you of potential side effects that may include blindness and the loss of essential body parts? This balance that the federal government has insisted upon may have you wondering who on earth is that clamoring to their doctor, thus creating the pull strategy for such drugs, but then we are, after all, a society that regularly consumes foods saturated in acrylamide-a toxic chemical known to cause cancer in animals. Truth be told, we prefer our gratification served up just like our high-in-caffeine lattes-instantaneously. Is it any wonder Starbucks got an exclusive on the CD release of Alanis Morissette’s acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill?

Rest assured, that will not be the soundtrack for men now capable of throwing a football through a hanging tire, as if they were threading a needle with deft precision. And there could be unintended consequences as a result of Senator Frist’s call for temperance that might create a new cacophony. The first note will be the sucking sound of millions of advertising dollars disappearing from the airwaves-followed by the pandemonium of sales executives, as they scramble to replace the dollars by taking anything that comes over the transom-resulting in the din of false claims-capped off by an uproar of consumer unrest.

Because, unfortunately, bogus ingestible products are not subjected to the same federal scrutiny as the pharmaceutical companies until after they hit the air and have taken valuable commercial inventory away from legitimate direct marketers. And although this may seem like a case of double standards and practices, ad sales executives will be under tremendous pressure from their management to replace big pharma’s dollars and it is the group pedaling instant natural remedies that are in the best position to pay top dollar. Take a combination of fabulous margins, mix in a miracle cure, and call me in the morning…when you’re done counting the money.

So who is responsible for this mess? The marketer who, in reverse, engineers a double-blind study so confusing it’s likely to make a reviewer go, “never mind?” The consumer who says the term caveat emptor is Greek to me? The broadcaster of a publicly traded network trying to plug the dike as its audience seeps away? A government tangled by a bureaucracy akin to the beltway on a Friday afternoon? Maybe the answer lies in a simple statement from our astute neighbor to the north, Ms. Morissette. For after taking my Ginkgo Biloba, I seem to recall that her biggest hit intoned, You Oughta Know.

Rick Petry, a partner with Downstream, is a consultant to the direct marketing industry. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].


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