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The rise of the "unbranded" pharmaceutical ad

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Pharmaceutical ads sometimes turn off consumers with their laundry lists of unpleasant side effects, but an increasingly popular type of drug company ad is finding a way around that.

Called “unbranded” ads, these commercials aren’t tied to one specific medication, but are designed to alert consumers to a medical condition. Mylan (MYL), which has come under fire for its EpiPen pricing, created one such unbranded campaign earlier this year to alert consumers about the dangers of allergies. Like many other unbranded ad, the commercial’s tone played on the frightening outcome of lacking a medication. 

Face Your Risk | Life-Threatening Allergic Reaction by Face Your Risk on YouTube

The rise of these sneaky ads come as the annual $5.7 billion pharmaceutical advertising industry is facing increasing criticism. The American Medical Association last year called for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertisements for prescription drugs and medical devices, citing concern that the ads prompt consumers to demand expensive treatments that they don’t need. Critics have also questioned whether there’s a link between increased advertising spending and higher drug prices, neither of which are relenting.

Unbranded ads have the potential to mislead consumers, Ameet Sarpatwari, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told StatNews. Patients aren’t hearing about the risks that come with a specific treatment, and may “not be able to attribute that this information is coming from a company with a clear profit motive,” Sarpatwari said. “That’s a twofold whammy for consumers.”

What’s clear is that drug companies are ramping up their spending on unbranded drug ads. Spending on pharmaceutical ads that mention a drugmaker but not a specific medicine (as in the case of unbranded ads) jumped 31 percent to $358.9 million last year, according to data from Kantar Media provided to CBS MoneyWatch.

The unbranded ads are framed as providing information to consumers about life-threatening ailments. While ads for branded medications may present a sunny view of patients who are thriving thanks to the treatment, the unbranded ads tend to color the issues with a more ominous tone. After warning viewers about a potentially life-threatening issue, the ads point consumers to a website where they can learn more.

Take a Novartis (NVS) ad that highlighted the issue of heart failure. The TV spot showed a man reading a newspaper from his armchair, while waters rise around him. While he appears oblivious, his dog whines and a deep drum beat grows more insistent. A narrator intones, “With heart failure danger is always on the rise ... About 50% of people die within 5 years of getting diagnosed.”

The ad doesn’t mention a medication, but points viewers to a website called, along with the logo, “Sponsored by Novartis.” Neither the ad nor the website mention Novartis’ heart failure drug, Entresto, but critics viewed the spot as a way to get patients to talk about the drug with their doctors, according to CardioBrief​. Medical professionals condemned the ad as “alarmist” and “horrifying,” the publication noted.

“I think if there is any proof that our nation was misguided to pursue direct to consumer advertising, this is it,” said Vinay Prasad of Oregon Health and Sciences University, according to CardioBrief.

Yet there may be another reason why pharmaceutical companies are increasingly turning to unbranded advertisements. More Americans are taking a dim view of drugmakers these days, thanks to price hikes that are eating away at their household budgets​.

Forty-three percent of Americans have a negative view of the pharmaceutical industry, compared with 36 percent in 2014, Gallup found​. 

Mylan’s EpiPen advertising came under scrutiny this month when parents and consumer advocates questioned what was behind the sky-high increase in the medication’s costs. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker was the face of its Anaphylaxis for Reel awareness campaign, but because there’s no mention of the EpiPen, it may not be clear to everyone that a for-profit drugmaker is behind the push. Parker last week cut her ties with the drugmaker over the huge price hikes for the medication. 

To be sure, there can be benefits to such campaigns, given that they can raise awareness for a specific disease or medical issue. They also remain a small portion of the overall pharmaceutical industry’s spending on ads, which jumped 18 percent between 2014 and 2015.

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