FAU Study: Big Pharma Needs to be More Transparent in Consumer Ads

By paul owers | 7/19/2021

Marketers conducting focus groups for prescription drug advertisements should be testing public perceptions and ethical issues in addition to the effectiveness of the messages, according to a researcher at Florida Atlantic University.

In a study published in Health Marketing Quarterly, Paul Sergius Koku, Ph.D, examined the legal and ethical considerations of direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of prescription drugs, a practice on which the pharmaceutical industry spends billions of dollars annually. Koku’s research focused on Pfizer’s controversial Lipitor ad in 2008.

“Pharmaceutical companies need to more carefully consider the impact of perceptions and ethics in their DTCA ads,” said Koku, a marketing professor in FAU’s College of Business. “How the public perceives an ad matters because it embodies society’s values.”

In his study, Koku analyzed three issues related to Pfizer’s ad for the cholesterol-reducing drug:

  • The company used as a spokesman Dr. Robert Jarvik, the inventor of an artificial heart. The ad showed him rowing in a canoe, but the person was, in fact, a body double.
  • Jarvik referred to himself as a doctor in the ad but was not licensed to practice medicine in the United States.
  • Jarvik was pitching Lipitor even though it was considerably more expensive than the comparable generic drug.

Koku concluded that Pfizer did not violate laws or breach society protocols. Because Jarvik has a medical degree, he technically is a doctor. In addition, if he uses Lipitor and believes it is better at lowering his cholesterol than a generic equivalent, he could in good faith serve as a spokesman, according to the study.

Still, Koku found that the ad’s use of a body double was inappropriate under the deontological theory of ethics, which ascribes that a person is duty-bound to tell the truth.

The study also noted the ad’s public relations fallout, the money spent by Pfizer on damage control, the ad’s quick termination and a subsequent Congressional hearing.

Koku said the lesson from the Lipitor example extends beyond DTCA and can apply to other products and services.

“The decision to launch a DTCA for a prescription drug as well as the content of DTCAs falls into a category where even though an act might be legal, it may not necessarily be ethical,” the study stated. “The case of Lipitor brings such a scenario to the fore and serves as a wake-up call to decision-makers to be vigilant. It is better for marketing decision-makers to make decisions that are both legal and ethical.”