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J Epidemiol Community Health. 2007 April; 61(4): 366.
PMCID: PMC2652949

Pharmaceutical advertising: from prospectus to marketing

Some 30 years ago, Henry Gadsen, director of Merck Pharmaceuticals, confided to Fortune magazine that he was worried about the potential market for his products being confined to sick people. Three decades on, the marketing strategy of the major pharmaceutical companies is increasingly being specifically aimed at healthy people.1

Advertising is one of the marketing strategies used by pharmaceutical companies to inform both the end user and doctors prescribing treatment. However, advertising messages are characterised as a mixture of information and persuasion (from prospectus to marketing), as they use rational sales discourse implemented through advertising language, possibly creating the need to use pharmacological treatment, which may not always be necessary or the most effective solution to the problem.

Although it is true that we cannot do away with advertising, it also needs to be read critically. This would allow us to take informed decisions regarding the quality of pharmaceuticals, based on the best scientific evidence available to us.

With the aim of regulating this situation, the World Health Organization2 has made recommendations for the presentation of pharmaceutical information in advertising. This was because they saw that advertising strategies respond more to market interest (increasing the target public) than to informative functions. However, this function is needed by consumers in order to consume the advertised products in a correct and safe manner.

In recent years, advertising discourse has been subjected to several investigations. Many studies have concluded that advertisements should present information more accurately, as, at times, they offer information of little importance in the clinical trials or it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover the bibliographical references used to back up advertising campaigns.

Accordingly, doctors and users have to evaluate advertising and the information presented in advertising messages critically. On the other hand, manufacturers must present information accurately. To do this, they should take into account the recommendations of specialised international organisations. This could also be a means of strengthening the advertising strategy, by lending it credibility.

References

1. Moynihan R, Cassels A. Selling sickness: how drug companies are turning us all into patients. New York: Nation Books, 2005
2. Word Health Organization Criteria for medicinal drug promotion. Geneva: WHO, 1988, http://www.who.int/medicinedocs/collect/edmweb/pdf/whozip08e/whozip08e.pdf (accessed 29 Jan 2007)

Articles from Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group