A source told Brandweek that some of the 'biggest' drug companies had successfully placed "disease awareness" messages in reality TV shows. Non-branded mentions of diseases and conditions are useful to drug companies because they make patients more comfortable talking to their doctors about problems, and doctor visits lead to category-wide prescription sales increases.
Because the area is so controversial—no company wants to be scrutinized by the FDA—executives declined to say which brands were being placed.
The Nielsen statistics, however, imply that their efforts have paid off. There were 337 visual or audio mentions of prescription drug brands in 2006, according to Nielsen. That's up from 231 in 2005. The length of those occurrences also increased, from 607 seconds in 2005 to 1,548 seconds last year.
While a normal background level of drug mentions is to be expected—Viagra and Prozac are cultural touchstones as well as brands—some drug brands stick out in unusual ways.
Take, for instance, Dey Pharma's EpiPen, the injectible for people with potentially fatal allergic reactions. In the Jan. 16 episode of Boston Legal (ABC), a school teacher failed to administer the anti-allergy injectible to a child who ate peanut candy and died of anaphylactic shock.
The script read like an ad for the Dey brand: 'Anaphylactic shock can come on suddenly, which is what happened here,' said the boy's father, testifying on the show. 'If the EpiPen isn't administered, it can be fatal.'
EpiPen also was mentioned five times on the Feb. 8 episode of NBC's ER, per Nielsen.
The Napa, Calif.-based Dey has previously denied that it engages in product placement. Last week, a source confirmed that when TV producers request branded props, the pharmaceutical company fulfills the requests.
The only drug company that has come out of the closet regarding product placement is Organon. In 2005, the Roseland, N.J., firm placed posters for its Nuvaring contraceptive in the backgrounds of NBC's Scrubs and CBS' King of Queens. Since then, it has added ABC's Grey's Anatomy to its list, according to brand director Lisa Barkowski.
And pharmaceutical company executives wonder why the public and physicians don't trust their companies? If they want to develop some trust, maybe they should start by plaining labeling every one of their marketing efforts as such.