Drug Advertising: How to Make a Killing

With the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine receiving full approval from the FDA, and Moderna shortly behind, prepare for an unprecedented wave of drug advertising! This could have a positive impact with regards to vaccination rates, but drug advertising in the U.S. has a dark, deadly history. Joined by guest co-host Gillian Mason, we cover the surprising reasons our airwaves and social media are saturated with drug ads, and the lethal consequences we saw in the opioid epidemic, which was manufactured by the exact same pharmaceutical companies now marketing the COVID-19 vaccines.


Show Notes

Direct-to-Consumer advertising is illegal in every country except the United States and New Zealand.

Even in the U.S., you never saw drug ads until the 1980s and very few until the 2000s, since drug makers had to list ALL of the drug’s potential risks and side effects in the ad – just like they did in magazine and newspaper advertisements.

So the decade that gave us “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go)” (one of the finest pop songs of the 80s) also gave us the start of “loophole ads” that didn’t mention their drugs’ risks and side-effects, but ALSO didn’t mention the disease the drug treats – just pure branding.

Finally in 1997 the FDA started allowing pharmaceutical companies to only list the MAJOR risks of their drugs – not all risks. If you’ve ever listened to the risk section of a drug ad, it’s terrifying to imagine that we’re actually not even getting the full risk statement. This is why they say “see our ad in some completely bizarre magazine” – they’re actually referring you to their full risk statement.

Back the money: direct to consumer advertising of prescription drugs hit $6.58 billion in 2020. This doesn’t even include social media or online advertising, which generally wasn’t allowed prior to 2016 – because it’s hard to list the “side effects” of drugs on social media – but the FDA has been allowing it, and pharma has been hitting social media hard now.

Facebook pharma advertising hit about $1 billion in 2019.

Drug advertising is not only the wrong venue to learn the pros and cons of a medication (your doctor’s office is the best place for that), it’s dangerous. The opioid epidemic was manufactured using marketing and advertising. Right now Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are being sued by every state and many cities and counties for their role in the epidemic.

Opioid litigation started with a seminal 2019 court ruling against J&J for over $500 million for its role in the Oklahoma opioid crisis: “The Defendants, acting in concert with others, embarked on a major campaign in which they used branded and unbranded marketing to disseminate the messages that pain was under-treated and ‘there was a low risk of abuse and a low danger’ of prescribing opioids.”

Stay tuned for news about the national opioid settlement and various state, city, and county lawsuits against opioid manufacturers.

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