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When the Trump administration released its blueprint for lowering drug prices a couple months ago, it floated a trial balloon: What if we required manufacturers to include drug prices in direct-to-consumer advertising?

It’s unclear if the intent of doing that is to make prices more transparent to consumers, to “shame” manufacturers into lowering prices, to discourage spending on direct-to-consumer advertising, or all of the above.

A recently released Kaiser Health Tracking Poll explored what the American public thought of the idea. Not surprisingly, 76 percent were in favor of it, which nearly matched the percentage of Americans from a March Kaiser poll who said drug prices are too high.


It’s a great populist idea, but would it really help consumers or drive down pricing? No, on both fronts, and here’s why.

Once that price flashes up on the screen, how is a consumer going to make use of it? Drug prices vary considerably from one disease or treatment category to another, and often even within a category. Consumers will see a single price in a 30- or 60-second ad, but won’t know what other medicines in the category cost. Assuming they remember the ad and then go research other prices in the category, how will they determine the relative value of a treatment, and whether it’s the right one for them? And if they see several ads in an evening for different conditions — say one for anxiety and another for cancer — they’ll see wildly different prices, maybe by orders of magnitude. Rather than add clarity, these variances will only increase confusion.


Selecting a treatment for a disease isn’t like choosing a car. When car companies show the manufacturer’s suggested retail price in ads, consumers generally know where that brand of car fits in the hierarchy of luxury to economy cars and where it stands in the spectrum of quality and reliability. They know what features they’re looking for. They’re told what rebates and financing deals are available. They can figure out what it will cost them, and they know they can go out and buy it without restriction.

But consumers don’t have unrestricted access to advertised prescription medications. They need a doctor to prescribe a treatment, based on their specific medical history and condition. Their insurer has to cover it — or they have to be prepared to pay out of pocket for it. The price they’ll actually pay will vary too, depending on their health plan and even their location. An ad won’t give them any of that. Instead, it will give them just a price which, for most people, won’t be anything like what they’ll actually pay for the medication.

Let’s also consider the possibility that some consumers might not be turned off by seeing a high price associated with a medication in an ad. On the contrary, it may drive demand because, for many people, more expensive means better.

Say you’re a cancer patient or caregiver and you see an ad about someone with cancer like yours who is getting better thanks to a new breakthrough drug. You’ll likely take note of the brand and go talk to your doctor. If you happen to see a $200,000 price tag at the end of the ad, you’re probably not going to say, “Never mind, this drug’s too expensive for me.” You’ll more than likely start researching how to get access to it through your health plan or an assistance program.

And then there’s the blah, blah, blah effect. As it is, we tend to tune out the latter part of direct-to-consumer ads, when the voice-over speeds us through a litany of warnings. Adding a drug price might initially grab some attention. But as consumers learn that the advertised price has seemingly little or no connection to what they pay, they’ll likely start to tune it out just as most of us tune out the warnings.

If the Trump administration really wants to make an impact on drug pricing, flashing a price tag in an ad isn’t the way to go.

Craig Martin, a global principal with Ogilvy Consulting, specializes in the life sciences, biotech, health technology, health care, wellness, and pharmaceutical sectors. The opinions expressed here are his alone.

  • Why do we allow any advertizing of drugs at all? They simply provide false hope to those in pain. We can’t go out and buy them, even if we could afford them, and they simply result in patients needlessly pestering their physicians for drugs which in all reality probably won’t help them. Get rid of all drug advertizements, period.

  • Why deal with Big Pharma’s amassed wealth and monopolistic powers on such a superficial basis by debating the impact of including prices in ads?

    The only real approach should be for Congress and FDA to legislate that no prescription drugs can be advertised in any public medium, just as we accomplished with tobacco and hard liquor products. Up until 1997, drug ads were prohibited.

    It is pathetic to allow Big Pharma to push demand for their products through advertising to non-clinical people, not for any altruistic concern, but to only increase profits.

  • Even though medications are not the same as buying a car – I’ve yet to see any market where price transparency doesn’t help bring down prices. If I have an autoimmune disease knowing the price difference between the dozens of biologics advertised might help guide my conversation with my doctor. And if a new treatment for blood clotting costs $400 more but only provides a 5% increase in benefit then I want to know that and decide if that added benefit is really worth the additional cost for me. Consumers are a lot more savvy than this op-ed makes them out to be, and they certainly can’t make these kinds of decisions at all without at LEAST knowing the base price of prescription BEFORE they show up at the pharmacy to pick it up (or get the hospital bill).

  • It is abundantly clear that the Regime has no intention of bringing down pharmaceutical prices. There are plenty of these “Opinions” by misinformed or confused individuals, like this. The bottomless pockets of Pharma, their lobbyists, public relation firms, and advertising dollars provide ample incentives for these types of opinions. In Post Fact and Post Science America these well placed opinions are designed to counter any meaningful discussion. They always hype the “Free Market” but putting the price of an obscenely expensive pharmaceutical in the ad, would set our hair on fire. This is one more example of why we need Universal Healthcare, the market based for profit system spawns this kind of misinformation. Thanks to all of the industry insiders sitting on regulatory boards, the American consumer has no expectation of learning about prices, side effects or even recalls. In Fact most of that information is effectively censored, thanks to Pharma Lobbyists, and their bought and paid for policy makers, and politicians. They have even managed to hide the number of deaths from the public. One fourth of the deaths attributed to “Opiate Overdose” are actually due to Poly Pharmacy. The Pharma industry made sure those numbers are obfuscated.

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