Drug Marketing: How Big Pharma Brainwashes You

Don't fall for pharma tricks borrowed from the junk-food industry!

February 10, 2014


Taking a page out of soda and other junk-food companies' books, big pharmaceutical companies now have drug-marketing campaigns that try to humanize their brands, according to new research from Canada.


Within four years, the global pharmaceutical market will be worth more than $1.3 trillion. A way that pharmaceutical companies are ensuring their profits is to sway consumers away from generic drugs, convincing them that specific brands are better.

Their move to inspire consumers to embrace brand personality is why you likely see loads of drug commercials every time you turn on the television these days. It's known as direct-to-consumer advertising, or DTCA, a technique long used by the junk-food industry. Drug marketers hope that by establishing a relationship with you, you're more likely to ask for the brand-name drug when your doctor writes your prescription.

"Pharmaceutical companies give their brands personality traits by relying on physical attributes, practical functions, user imagery, and usage contexts," explains study author Lea Prevel Katsanis, PhD, professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University. As a result, brand names like Viagra, Lipitor, and Prozac become shorthand for the drugs themselves."

Related: Hold the prescription! Try these natural remedies instead!

In the study, published in Journal of Consumer Marketing, researchers used an online survey to poll 483 people in the U.S. They rated 15 well-known prescription drugs based on 22 different personality traits, such as dependability, optimism, anxiousness, and elegance. The study included blockbuster drugs from Big Pharma companies such as Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and GlaxoSmithKline.

The results show that prescription-drug brand personality, as perceived by consumers, has two distinct dimensions: competence and innovativeness. Consumers typically applied terms such as dependable, reliable, responsible, successful, stable, practical, and solution-oriented to branded drugs, thus showing a preference for overall competence, the study authors found. Words like unique, innovative, and original related to the "innovativeness" of the drug in question.

Interestingly, these direct-to-consumer ads do not have to be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval before they start airing on television or in magazines. "In my view, direct-to-consumer ads should be reviewed by the FDA prior to release and before they are seen by consumers, not after the 'horse has left the barn;' this is the current policy," Katsanis says. "Generally speaking, I do not think DTCA is a great idea. Proponents argue it provides information and empowers consumers; critics argue it leads to inappropriate requests for drugs and increases healthcare costs."

Related: See how drug companies use ads to trick you!

Viagra is a perfect example of how building a relationship between a pharmaceutical brand and the consumer resulted in a huge payday for big pharma. Making an "embarrassing" problem more of an everyday issue, commercials used humor, music, and imagery to persuade consumers to ask for the brand name of the drug. "Animation and gentle music was used by Zoloft to describe depression; and 'teen' music has been used in ads for Yaz," Katsanis says.

Brand personality is simply a way to describe how consumers perceive Rx products as they do with consumer products, Katsanis warns. Care must be taken not to use brand personality to mislead or misinform consumers.