Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Advertising Health Care Products

While many of my editorials critique the pharmaceutical industry, this is directed at someone else: the advertising executives on Madison Avenue who dream up the direct-to-consumer (DTC) commercials for these products.

Since I live in New York City, I happen to know someone (she's actually a friend of a friend) who works for an ad agency and is a copyrighter for pharmaceutical products -- that's her job, so when I spoke with her, I asked her a lot of questions with great interest. Fortunately, her work does not involve any diabetes products, but I have to say that this woman really does very little to even get to know her target audience, which goes a long way towards explaining the advertisements we see today for blood glucose testing supplies. Without a doubt, the least credible one is for Abbott's Freestyle testing products that promote "virtually pain-free" testing. I have yet to meet a single person with diabetes who buys that line of crap.

I realize that advertising has evolved to the point where it has very little to do with actually reaching the customer. Today, advertising has more to do with making the client who is paying the bills happy -- that's all Madison Avenue really cares about. But marketers for testing products need to get to know who they are marketing to, which I would dare say might actually help their clients sell more of their products, thus making them happy in the process. Instead, the advertisers conduct some lame "study" that shows consumers want virtually pain-free testing and will be drawn to a product that provides that. They might even conduct qualitative research, which consists of focus groups filled with people who go to focus groups for a living! I kid you not, I know of a guy who did that for over a year and earned quite a bit doing so.

Anyone can design a study to prove pretty much anything, and while that may satisfy the FDA as far has having data to substantiate your advertising claims, please don't be fooled into speaking to us as consumers as if we're all brain-dead and might actually be motivated to change our testing habits based on your weak claims. But in order to not rock the boat, most advertisers tell their clients what they think they want to hear, not what will actually sell the products, thus the reason for today's pathetic commercials for a variety of health ailments including diabetes. One pet peeve I have is whenever the so-called diabetic patient in test strip commercials or print ads test their blood sugar, they are ALWAYS in the normal range. That's BIG mistake from a marketing standpoint. If someone's blood sugar is always normal, then they aren't diabetic, so why bother showing that in an ad? Why not show a figure of 376 mg/dL or 43 mg/dL? At least that might appear more realistic to many of the people these companies are trying to sell their meters and strips to. Furthermore, it sends the wrong signal to patients that their test results should always fall into the normal range, and if its not normal, then they have failed. Is it any wonder most people with diabetes don't test enough -- they don't want to be told by a machine how different from normal they actually are.

As someone who tests an average of 15 times per day, I personally don't test to smile about how close to normal it is, that by itself is not a reason to waste a $1.00 test strip or inflict pain (which is caused by the lancet, not the test strips you idiots on Madison Avenue) on myself. I often test to determine how far from euglycemia (higher or lower) my blood glucose levels actually are so I can determine what action is required (whether I need more insulin or I need to eat)!

It seems to me they have two markets for testing supplies: the enormous "noncompliant" market who test, according to recent studies, an average of only 4x per week, or the "heavy" users, which are people who are in excellent control of their condition and use about 10-15 (or more) test strips per day. The noncompliant market is huge, by some estimates numbering well over 10 million people, but I doubt a 30-second TV commercial is suddenly going to turn them into regular testers.

Madison Avenue needs to take a wild guess which market is more profitable. Although significantly larger, the non-compliant market does not represent gold mine marketers actually need to reach -- that group consists of those who already manage their condition intensively, and that's are where the profits are. Instead, they take the course of least resistance figuring if they can convince even a handful of the noncompliant market to test, they will generate millions in sales for their client. But simple math suggests that the "heavy" user market is far more profitable. Using some back-of-the envelope calculations, then we see that light test strip users will use about 240,000,000 test strips this year, while heavy users (estimated to be roughly 2 million type 1 and type 2 patients with diabetes who maintain good control) will use roughly 448,000,000 test strips assuming they use an average of 14 strips per day. So although the latter market is tiny by comparison, they are much more profitable.

But the heavy user market wants to know whats truly different about your products, not hear about unsubstantiated claims of pain-free testing. If you actually read the package inserts for the test strips, you might discover that the range of variation in test results was smallest for Abbott's Freestyle test strips. That might be a pitch that catches our attention (nevermind the annoying design of the strips themselves). Instead, the baseless claims about virtually pain-free testing have made me avoid that product like the plague. I really should be in advertising, but perhaps I am applying too much common sense here!


Anonymous said...

To Abbot's credit, the "virtually pain-free" claim isn't completely off base - it simply refers to when the blood sample comes from an alternate test site such as the forearm. Back in my sloppy 4 tests a week days, I tried the forearm thing for a while, but I quit once my endo pointed out how far behind the arm tests lagged compared to finger tests. Now I am a heavy tester and like you, don't care a bit about pain as long as my test is accurate, and my Freestyle Flash meters are meeting that need just fine.

Bernard said...


If you don't like the Freestyle test strip design, you'll probably like the WaveSense Keynote strips. They take very small amount of blood, but you get the visual feedback.

Very fast countdown with a gratuitous piece of animation on the meter thrown in for free! I'm impressed.

I wrote a quick note on the meter and will follow with a complete review.

Any Amy Tenderich talks about the KeyNote on her site.

If they do decide to advertise this at some stage, it'll be interesting to see the ad copy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

My name is Carrie and I am fairly new to blogging. I am a RN, currently obtaining my Certified Diabetes Educator certification. I linked to your blog through Kerry (Six Until Me). I have read a couple of your posts so far and I am enjoying the content. This post particularly grabbed my attention for two reasons: 1. I want to learn about how to be the best diabetes educator possible by connecting with individuals who experience diabetes everyday. 2. I am intrigued by your comments about the pharmaceutical industry. My husband previously worked for Procter & Gamble pharma and I am currently taking a media studies class for school. Your thoughts provide interesting insight on both ends.
So I hope you won't mind if I continue to explore your blog in my journey through obtaining my CDE and learning about my own diabetes!