FDA “Bad Ad” Program Requires New Drug Company PR Strategies

May 17th, 2010

Hear about the “Bad Ad Program”?  Unfortunately it’s not an effort to rid television of anachronistic credit card vikings, pushy car insurance salesladies, or the latest romantic comedy trailer.

Stop us if you’ve heard something like this on television before: “… side effects include dizziness, temporary amnesia, spontaneous twitching, skin hue shift, stunted decision making skills…”  Ok, the exaggeration is meant to get your attention, but no doubt you immediately conjured images of pharmaceutical commercials.

Aside from the information drug ads present, critics have attacked drug companies for misleading claims and encouraging hypochondria.  The concern is real, because no matter how you cut it, prescription drug consumption has been a huge cash cow for the pharmaceutical industry.  Last year the companies raked in more than $300 billion on drug sales, and in the past 50 years the growth rate has dipped below 5% only three times.

No doubt then that the industry is gearing up on its defense, given last week’s announcement that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will implement a new watchdog program called Truthful Prescription Drug Advertising and Promotion.

The PR gurus at the FDA are definitely in on the effort, as the nickname “Bad Ad Program” is about as media-friendly and pithy as it gets.  The program will initially encourage physicians to report misleading claims in commercials, though the agency’s outreach will continue to conferences and other medical industry venues.

Knowing that their public relations efforts are about to face increased scrutiny, drug companies should embrace the new program instead of running away from it.  Often, the temptation to attack such regulations is strong for any industry, but here the public interest – and the heightened media attention given the ongoing fallout from healthcare reform – counsel drug companies to work within the program.

For example, a strong start would be a unified industry voice stating that the drug companies “applaud the clear direction from the FDA” and at the same time continues to explain the legitimate benefits of prescription drugs.  Certainly, some drugs have been harmful to patients, but the vast majority have improved the quality of life.  The drug industry shouldn’t assume that these positive effects will speak for themselves – the companies must ensure that everyone in their supply chain, from the CEO to pharmaceutical sales representatives, are well-versed on the same industry messages and standards.  One bad sales pitch that results in a Bad Ad complaint could easily derail a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, and cause a PR headache of nightmare proportions.

By planning ahead on internal communications strategies, the drug companies can ensure consistency amongst employees, which is particularly important when the issues at stake are high-profile media targets.

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