Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory used primarily to treat arthritis, was aggressively marketed with over $100 million in promotion that featured Olympians Dorothy Hammill and Bruce Jenner. It became widely known and prescribed before being pulled off the market for doubling risk for a heart attack or stroke, but not before being prescribed to millions of people. The FDA estimates that Vioxx was responsible for as many as 139,000 heart attacks and almost 30,000 deaths from heart attack or stroke.
Proponents of drug advertising say ads inform consumers about important, treatable health conditions and encourage doctor/patient dialogue. They argue the ads send sick patients to the doctor's office.
They say these better-informed consumers get improved quality of care.
They argue that the advertising reaches low-income consumers who gain valuable information and then are motivated to seek medical help.
There are a number of bills being debated in Congress to limit or prohibit DTC advertising. About $235 billion is spent on prescription drugs annually and almost $5 billion in DTC TV, radio, magazine and newspaper advertising, according to Nielsen Media Research.
While watching my doctor hand a Lipitor sample to his patient, what immediately came to mind was Lipitor's $258 million advertising campaign featuring Dr. Robert Jarvik, the inventor of one of the first artificial hearts. Critics pointed out Jarvik was neither a cardiologist nor licensed to practice medicine.
Jarvik appeared on "Good Morning America" in 2008 to defend himself and Lipitor.
"I am a medical scientist, not a practicing physician," he said. "I think it's very up front. I am a doctor. I have long experience with heart disease."
But Jarvik's arguments did little to quell the criticism of Lipitor. Its maker, Pfizer, ultimately pulled the Jarvik advertising campaign.
As a marketer, I would like to see pharmaceutical companies take a much bigger role in promoting health prevention and wellness with more community and faith-based efforts. I would like to see them spend more time targeting high-risk groups. Drug companies receive taxpayer subsidies and their marketing efforts would ring more true if we could believe they really have our best interests in mind.
The work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Larry Woodard is president and CEO of Vigilante, a New York-based advertising agency that develops consumer-centric advertising campaigns. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.