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Pharmaceutical Marketing Series Part I
As mentioned previously, I will be posting a three-part series on pharmaceutical marketing in the United States over the next few days.  This series is organized as follows:

-Part I: A brief history of pharmaceutical marketing

-Part II: Pharmaceutical advertising from 1997 to the present day

-Part III: My perspective on pharmaceutical advertising and marketing

Read on for the first article in this series.

To learn about a resource that provides more information on this topic, please click here.    Pharmaceutical Marketing from the 1800s to 1990s: There is Nothing New Under the Sun  

The Rise of “Patent Medicine” & Drug Promotion

Much has been made in recent years about the pervasiveness of pharmaceutical advertising and its potential impact on healthcare providers and patients.  While some may believe this is a new development, drug advertising is a decades old marketing practice.  After the Civil War, “patent medicine” grew in prominence as drug manufacturers spent increasing sums to advertise their products to the public.  In fact, drug advertising helped to fund the rise of newspapers and other forms of mass media.[1]  

Advertising was not the only marketing tactic drug firms adopted in the early part of the twentieth century.  According to historian Nancy Tomes:

“Many large firms began to invest in sophisticated market research to determine  people’s wants and fears . . . [to develop] advertising campaigns [that portrayed] . . . drugs as products of the new laboratory science . . ." [1]

1940s – 1960s:  Public Relations, Physician Marketing & Increasing Regulation  

From the early 1900s until about 1940, drug manufacturers directed increasing amounts of pharmaceutical advertising toward consumers.  Consumer advocates and physicians were significantly concerned about these marketing tactics.  Some worried that the public was being encouraged to take unnecessary and unsafe medications.

Partly because of increasing criticism, pharmaceutical companies stopped advertising prescription medications directly to patients after World War II.[1]  However, this did not mean that companies ceased marketing to patients.  Drug firms produced advertisements touting the benefits of modern medicine and defended the high price of prescription medications.[1]  Companies also hired public relations firms to encourage media to publish stories about new drugs.  

Public outcry over early direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising and the professionalization of medicine were two factors that prompted pharmaceutical companies to direct more attention toward physicians.  During the early to mid-20th century, the American Medical Association led efforts to revamp medical education, standardize clinical practice and improve drug manufacturing.[2]  

As the industry increased its marketing to physicians, companies began to deploy corps of “detail men” that visited physicians and provided them with information about pharmaceuticals and treatment practices.  Tomes notes that “detail men” were highly professional and had a strong sense of “moral purpose.”[1]

Although pharmaceutical companies viewed their marketing activities as highly ethical, concerns continued to mount.  Now however, critics focused on physicians rather than consumers.  They asserted that drug makers were influencing prescribing patterns, over-medicating the public and downplaying drug side effects.[1]

Worries about drug promotion contributed to the passage of the 1962 Kefauver-Harris amendments.  This legislation granted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to regulate drug advertising.

1970s – 1990s:  Consumers Advocate for More Information; The Resurgence of DTC Advertising

During the 1970s and 1980s, consumers began to ask for more medical information and the freedom to make decisions about their care.  Consumer advocates succeeded in prompting changes to the quality and types of information provided to patients.  In response to this trend, pharmaceutical companies began to advocate for permission to increase advertising to the lay public.[3]  Drug firms argued that advertisements would educate consumers and help them partner with their physicians to make better medical decisions.[3]

In 1985, the FDA announced that pharmaceutical companies could advertise directly to consumers if they provided detailed information about side effects, efficacy and drug-drug interactions.[4]  The pharmaceutical industry balked at these regulations, arguing that these rules were cumbersome and required them to produce pages of additional material that was dense and rarely understood.  Drug firms also contended that it was not feasible for them to include this information in television or radio advertisements.[3]

Finally in 1997, the FDA issued new guidelines on DTC advertising, which freed pharmaceutical companies to engage in extensive promotion to consumers – if they provided additional information via the Internet or encouraged people to see their doctors.  

Next Up: Pharmaceutical Advertising from 1997 – 2006:  Nine Years of Change & Controversy  

In part two of this series I will focus on the current state (and criticism) of pharmaceutical advertising in the United States.


1.    Tomes, N., The Great American Medicine Show Revisited. Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 2005. 79(4): p. 627-664.

2.    Anonymous. The History of the American Medical Association: 1900 - 1940  December 12, 2005 [cited 2006 May 10]; Available from:;

3.    Wilkes, M.S., R.A. Bell, and R.L. Kravitz, Direct-To-Consumer Prescription Drug Advertising: Trends, Impact, and Implications. Health Affairs, 2000. 19(2): p. 110-128.

4.    36677. 9 September 1985, Federal Register 56

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» Pharmaceutical Marketing Series Part III from HealthCareVox
Following is the third and final installment in my ongoing series on pharmaceutical marketing. In part one, I focused on the history of pharmaceutical marketing until 1997. In part two, I wrote about the evolution of pharmaceutical advertising from 199... [Read More]

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