The US Senate recently passed an amendment that would require pharmaceutical companies to list prices of their prescription drugs in direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads.

If the Durbin-Grassley amendment makes it through the Congressional reconciliation process intact, it could present some big new complications for pharma marketers in the US.

Pharma companies are already required to list side effects in DTC ads, and even though they can be off-putting, this requirement isn’t a deal-breaker for companies or consumers.

But given that pharma’s reputational woes have been caused in large part by controversy over drug pricing, it’s possible that a similar requirement for prices could even represent the beginning of the end for DTC ads as we know them in the US – which is not only the largest market for many pharma companies, but one of only two countries that allows direct-to-consumer pharma ads.

Here’s a look at how pharma marketing efforts would likely be affected if drug pricing disclosures in these ads soon become required.

Pharma marketers would have to figure out what needs to be disclosed

As many are already pointing out, drug pricing can be incredibly complex. Will pharma companies be required to provide list prices, which are often heavily discounted, or alternative measures of price, such as average sales price?

The specific requirements could make a significant difference to how DTC ads are structured and perceived by consumers going forward.

For expensive drugs, pharma marketers may need to massage the messaging

Some drugs, especially those that treat cancer and rare diseases, can be incredibly expensive. Despite the fact that these drugs are often life-savers, the requirement that DTC pharma ads include pricing information could result in sticker shock and exacerbate consumer angst over the cost of medications and medical treatments.

As such, pharma marketers may find themselves in the position of having to massage, test and iterate their messaging to ensure that pricing is put in context to the greatest extent possible, and that any negative reaction to it is minimized.

It might become wise to invest in more unbranded ads

The efficacy of traditional television ads has waned alongside pharma companies’ reputations, so a growing number of companies have turned to unbranded ads that aim to drive awareness of conditions that their drugs treat instead of directly advertising their conditions.

For example, in 2016, GSK launched a campaign to promote awareness of meningitis. The campaign was primarily educational in nature, and instead of promoting GSK’s vaccine, aimed to educate young adults and their parents about the risks of meningitis.

Another major pharma, Novartis, has launched a number of condition-focused educational campaigns of its own.

Because these campaigns don’t promote specific drugs, they are not required to contain the disclosures required in ads that do. Assuming this remains the case, Jeremy Schafer, SVP at consultancy Precision for Value, believes that pricing transparency could make unbranded ads even more appealing to pharma marketers.

Storytelling will become even more important

If pharma marketers are going to effectively counteract the negative perceptions that exist around their companies, they are going to have to become more adept storytellers.

Through campaigns that are focused on telling emotionally powerful stories – of lives saved and improved, medical innovations created, and so on – pharma marketers can start to offer greater context around controversial issues such as drug pricing.

A requirement that DTC ads disclose pricing information will only increase the value of this kind of storytelling.

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