Drug ads have been a common sight for television watchers for over a decade, with ads promoting treatments for cholesterol, asthma and erectile dysfunction becoming increasingly popular. However, in the past, pharmaceutical companies have focused their advertising dollars on illnesses faced by a wide swath of television watchers in order to maximize their investment return.
It wasn’t until September 2015 that viewers began seeing messages targeted at limited groups of viewers. During NFL games and other programming, a commercial for Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s lung cancer drug Opdivo promised this small sector of patients “a chance to live longer,” as the commercial paraded a make-believe family across the screen. This was just the first in a wave of TV advertising spots created for expensive, limited market drugs that will be hitting the airwaves this year.
Why So Much Spend on Limited-Use Products?
Although the market for something like a lung cancer drug is very small, television advertisement can still be a beneficial tool in a company’s media strategy. Not only do commercials like Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s show patients and their families other options for their medical problems, they also encourage questions — including calls from patients to their insurance companies. These calls can pressure insurance companies into paying for drugs they had otherwise excluded from their benefits schedule.
Opdivo costs about $12,500 a month for patients who are using it, so unlike the average Subway sandwich, even a small number of new patients can spell a big profit from well-placed commercials. Another drug, Hetlioz, designed to treat a common sleep disorder among blind people, has seen a tremendous boost in awareness since running a similar ad campaign. Currently, fewer than 1,000 people take this drug (which costs approximately $148,000 a year), but over 12,000 callers have made new contact since the first advertisements ran.
“We would have rather avoid the expense of a campaign, but there was no other efficient way of doing it,” Michael Polymeropoulos, Vanda’s (makers of Hetlioz) Chief Executive, told the Wall Street Journal. Although these commercials can serve as a reminder of frightening and serious diseases, patients also say they spread hope through awareness of new treatments.