N

ovartis may have just handed the many critics of pharmaceutical advertising a gift.

The drug maker is running a promotional campaign, including a 30-second TV spot, designed to raise awareness of heart failure. But the campaign, which features a man blissfully sitting in an easy chair while water quickly fills his living room, is being called “alarmist,” “terrifying” and “shameful” by heart specialists, according to CardioBrief.

The TV ad does have an ominous feel to it. As water rises, a voice warns that “heart failure is always on the rise. Symptoms worsen because your heart isn’t pumping well. About 50 percent of people die within five years of getting diagnosed. But there’s something you can do. Talk to your doctor about heart failure treatment options. Because the more you know, the more likely you are to keep pumping.”

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The campaign, however, does not specifically mention Entresto, a Novartis drug that was approved last summer by US regulators to prevent heart failure, which is a common malady that afflicts about 5.1 million Americans. Advertising that discusses an illness without promoting a particular product is known as disease awareness and is a common type of advertising employed by drug makers.

Drug mention or no drug mention, several heart specialists slammed Novartis. As far as they’re concerned, the campaign is an uncalled-for attempt to scare consumers into considering treatment for a condition they may not have.

“This ad really disturbs me. It is alarmist and I am not certain that is a good thing for patients,” Dr. Milton Packer, a Baylor University professor who worked on the key Entresto trial, told CardioBrief. And Dr. Ethan Weiss, a University of California, San Francisco, professor, told the blog that “I think it’s irresponsible to play on the fears of patients in such a brazen and manipulative way. They should be ashamed.”

Similarly, Mary Knudsen, a heart failure patient advocate who has written a book about the illness, also complained that Novartis is going too far. “It’s a terrible ad,” she told the blog. It’s “shameful for a drug manufacturer to try to scare people with active heart failure who are at risk of sudden death, just to try to sell a new product.”

The controversy arises just three months after the American Medical Association called for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines. In reaching its decision, the professional society argued that the advertising is designed to generate demand for new and expensive drugs, which may not be necessary.

One marketing expert believes Novartis is making a mistake.

“Scaring consumers is precisely the goal of this and many other disease awareness ads,” said John Mack, who publishes Pharma Marketing News. “Novartis should pull the ad because it is getting some negative feedback from prominent physicians.

“This is not the time to give the AMA more ammunition to use in its campaign to ban all prescription drug DTC advertising. With all the so-called talented ad agencies out there, I’m sure they can come up with a more creative, less scary, and just-as-effective replacement ad.”

Not everyone agreed, though, that the campaign is off the mark. “I think this (ad) is very well done,” said Richard Meyer, a pharmaceutical marketing consultant who writes The World of DTC Marketing blog. “It is helping patients become more empowered by learning about heart failure.  I can’t see any patients running to the doctor to say ‘I have heart failure.’ Rather, it provides information something that most doctors don’t do.”

So what, if anything, might Novartis do to quell the controversy?

A Novartis spokesman wrote us a note to say “our goal is to create awareness of heart failure so people with the condition can take action to live longer and healthier lives. We developed the ‘Keep It Pumping’ ad with those intentions — to educate people and facilitate patient-physician dialogue.”

“According to statistics published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, about 50 percent of individuals diagnosed with heart failure die within five years. This information is widely cited by government agencies like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the country’s leading organization dedicated to heart health, the American Heart Association.”

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  • Having worked on quinolones for CHF patients with Stage III/IV heart failure and pulmonary edema describe a sense of drowning in their own fluids. Those ringing the alarums bell should speak with one of them.

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