I agree with the AMA’s proposed Ban on DTC Ads of Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices. To me, the logic of the ban is that the only other country in the world that allows direct-to-consumer drug ads is New Zealand. My goal in this blog is not to repeat the various pros and cons cited for DTC ads1. Although, for the record, my interpretation is that the cons far outweigh any perceived pros.

My goal instead is to shed light on how these ads work and what makes DTC pharma ads effective advertising. I selected what are considered the best DTC pharma ads per Rand Marketing (Mar 27, 2016).


  • Issue highlighted: Product corrects a chemical imbalance in the brain that leads to depression in the target market of individuals with sadness.
  • Value proposition: The ability to relieve sadness. It engages the user via “cuteness” that is taking a fairly depressing (sorry) topic and making it seem kid like and cute – and potentially beatable.
  • Call to action: Viewers are urged to talk to one’s doctor about Zoloft (not depression). They also highlight an ad in a magazine (Shape) and a phone number to call. Taking this action is expected to yield benefit to the viewer in terms of relieving depression.
  • Objective Measurable? The ad is highlighted as one of the most effective DTC ads ever. I feel the objective was measurable since data related to prescriptions is readily available and the company could measure changes in prescriptions in the markets where the ad was shown. I also feel the effect of ad was quite attainable at the time it was aired. It provided a clear call to action and doctors were likely to follow up by prescribing the drug that the patient requested.
  • Other notes: At the time there were only 2 SSRIs, and sertraline (Zoloft) had a better profile than fluoxetine (Prozac). Furthermore, depression as a medical condition was relatively unknown yet had been introduced already by the success of fluoxetine (Prozac).


  • Issue highlighted: A brand that cares about healthy eating. The target market here is people who eat sugar and unhealthy food.
  • Value proposition: This company can give you advice on how to lower triglycerides and eat more healthy food. It engages the user via pictures of appetizing food (bacon sizzling), people gorging on food, and most importantly humor via the two talking fish.
  • Call to action: The ad does not have an explicit call to action. The only benefit is that one is now aware that a drug company cares about health eating. When the listener runs across marketing by the company they may see it in a more positive light rather than a manipulative ploy to highlight their drug (which relates to diabetes). I think the ad is really funny, and the objective of putting a positive spin on the company’s brand should be easy to attain and measure via surveys and activity on social media (something they highlight in the ad).


  • Issue highlighted: the ability of the product to lower cholesterol to the target market of people with measured high cholesterol or people who are worried that they may have high cholesterol.
  • Value proposition: Lipitor will decrease heart disease (although the ad only mentions data that shows value in folks with existing heart disease, the ad implies value for anyone with high cholesterol). It engages the viewer via a healthy nature scene, someone rowing, and calm peaceful music to instill a sense of calm and vitality.
  • Call to action: The ad’s call to action is “ask your doctor if Lipitor is right for you,” and visit the website. That action is expected to yield a prescription and secondary benefit of lower cholesterol and decreased risk of heart disease.
  • Objective measurable? Yes, because prescribing habits are obtainable on a pharmacy level. The outcome was also attainable because people are always anxious about heart disease and cancer and cholesterol is a familiar and simple number that they can understand in terms of risk (a fact that is very much in dispute).


  • Issue highlighted: The ad highlights the ability of the drug to help you sleep better to a target market of folks with occasional insomnia (pretty much everyone).
  • Value proposition: The apparent value proposition is that this drug can help the person sleep but is not addictive and can be taken when needed. It engages the user via compassion for the person who can’t sleep [he looks awful], humor with honest Abe Lincoln, and an animal chatting.
  • Call to action: Ad says to “talk to your doctor” but doesn’t mention the specific drug to request that is expected to yield improved sleep to the viewer who receives the prescription.
  • Objective measurable? I feel the objective was measurable because prescribing habits are obtainable on a pharmacy level. The outcome (increased prescribing) was also attainable mostly because at that time most other sleep aids had been labeled as dangerous so the product was unique in the marketplace. This is perhaps why they don’t mention the specific drug for which to ask.


  • Issue highlighted: The cholesterol lowering feature of the product to a target market of individuals with high cholesterol.
  • Value proposition: This drug will be more effective at lowering cholesterol than its competitors because it lowers absorption of cholesterol and production of cholesterol. It engages the viewer by presenting picture of attractives food and people with funny poses and expressions.
  • Call to action: “Ask your doctor about adding Vytorin.” They also provide a phone number to call. Such action is expected to yield the benefit of lower cholesterol to the viewer.
  • Objective measurable? I feel the objective was measurable because prescribing habits are obtainable on a pharmacy level. The outcome was also attainable because cholesterol is perceived as a marker of health danger, so the public sees lowering cholesterol as a worthwhile goal in of itself.

Overall the ads use a variety of techniques and a fairly simple “talk to your doctor” call to action. They focus on areas of challenge or frustration and offer a simple and targeted solution. When a drug is mentioned the possible downside is read by the voice-over but not visually displayed, thereby implying that the advertised product would be a simple solution to their problem.


  1. Ventola C Lee. Direct-to-Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising. P T. 2011;36(10):669-684.

Picture Credit: Wikipedia user Royeligio