Lipitor: The controversial ad proves highly effective

Consumer Reports News: March 05, 2008 10:18 PM

Don’t feel too sorry for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which announced late last month that it would put a halt to a highly publicized ad campaign featuring Robert Jarvik, M.D. as a spokesperson for their bestselling drug, Lipitor.

A new study by the Consumer Reports National Research Center (and reported in our March issue) suggests that the ads were extremely effective while they ran, and probably helped sustain Lipitor’s position as the No. 1 cholesterol-lowering drug -- even though the ads eventually were pulled.

The ads suggested, among other things, that Lipitor—a member of the class of cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins—is a better choice than less-expensive generic statins that have come on the market. 

The Lipitor ad campaign came under scrutiny in recent weeks by both the media and the U.S. House of Representatives, which launched an investigation into celebrity endorsements of prescription drugs in direct-to-consumer advertising.

The committee is looking into Jarvik’s professional qualifications and his financial arrangement with Pfizer. Among the concerns: Jarvik, known for inventing the Jarvik artificial heart in the 1980s, is not a practicing physician, and it’s been reported that images of him rowing in one widely-aired TV spot turned out to be a body double.

The Consumer Reports survey, however, shows that Dr. Jarvik was a very effective and believable spokesman while the ads were running. In December 2007, we showed the television ad for Lipitor to 978 people who’d been advised by a doctor to lower their cholesterol.  Afterward, we asked viewers for their impressions. Among the key findings:

  • Sixty-five percent said the ad conveyed that leading doctors prefer Lipitor.
  • Forty-eight percent said Dr. Jarvik’s endorsement made them more confident about Lipitor. More than one-quarter (29 percent) got the impression from the ad that Dr. Jarvik sees patients regularly.
  • More than two-thirds of respondents taking Lipitor said they were inclined to stay with it after seeing the ad. One third of those taking a brand-name statin other than Lipitor were likely to speak to their physician about switching.
  • Forty-one percent said the ad conveyed that Lipitor is better than generic alternatives. (In fact, the vast majority of people who need to take a statin can get the same protection from a generic, and for less than half the cost.)

What’s more, people just plain liked the ad. Ninety-three percent of respondents found it friendly; 92 percent found it believable; and 91 percent perceived it as factual. No question those types of impressions have helped keep Lipitor the top-selling prescription drug in the United States for six years running.

We believe these findings underscore the need for consumers to view all drug advertising with caution. The ads may not include false information, but they also may not tell the whole story about the drugs they promote. That’s why we’ve launched Consumer Reports’ AdWatch, a series of video critiques that aim to fill in the blanks on direct-to-consumer drug ads. The first two installments critiqued television spots for Requip, the drug approved to treat Restless Legs Syndrome, and the sleep aid Rozerem. Stay tuned for our third AdWatch in the coming weeks.

For more information, see our comprehensive high cholesterol guide and Treatment Ratings (for subscribers) and our free CR Best Buy Drug report on statins.

Jamie Hirsh, associate editor


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