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Pharma Eclipses Insurance As Top Network Radio Advertiser. Here’s What’s Driving The Surge.

Big Pharma has been leaning into radio lately to market an array of prescription drugs that treat everything from COVID-19 to breast cancer to irritable bowel syndrome. Now it’s vaulted to the top of network radio’s ad categories, eclipsing even the omnipresent insurance vertical in spending. Drug stores and pharmaceutical companies invested $150.9 million in network radio for full year 2022, up 9.6% over 2021, according to MillerKaplan. The lion’s share ($146.3 million) came from Pharmaceuticals, which ratcheted up their radio outlay 14.1% year-over-year. Spending by drug stores, meanwhile, plunged 50.7% to $4.6 million.

According to MediaRadar, prescription advertisers invested more than $6.6 billion in traditional and digital ads from January to November 2022 with an average monthly investment that exceeded $600 million.

Leading the charge is Pfizer, the 174-year-old multinational that spent more than $62 million on network radio in 2022. Continuing to battle COVID was certainly a factor – Pfizer poured tens of millions of dollars into radio to market COVID 19 vaccines and treatments last year. But Pfizer also hit the airwaves to sell drugs used to treat other maladies, including Ibrance, Prevnar, Eliquis, Cologuard and Orgovyx. Other big players in the category include AbbVie and Procter & Gamble, which manufactures and markets a line of non-prescription personal health care brands.

The reason these and other Rx companies are buying more radio is similar to why CPG giant P&G is radio’s largest parent company advertiser. They both use AM/FM to add incremental reach to their marketing plans.

“It's a problem-solution thing, the problem being I can't get the same reach that I once could on linear TV and I can't make up for that loss by buying streaming services,” says Conor Doyle, Marketing Director at ad agency Veritone One, which works with Abbvie, Allergan and other Rx players. “So where do I get that reach? You turn to radio, which has so much reach for filling in the gaps.”

Meanwhile, targeting advancements being made in radio are helping brands home in on consumers suffering from the afflictions their therapies are used to treat. The arrival of consumer health data providers like Swoop, which pinpoint desired audience segments and has integrated its data with Nielsen, are helping agencies and brands better reach their customers and prospects on broadcast radio. So are supply-side products like iHeartMedia’s programmatic SmartAudio ad sales platform, which uses audience data and real-time inputs for broadcast radio ad targeting.

These and other advancements are making radio a more efficient channel for pharma advertisers. “While there is big reach at play here, there are nuances to these targets and these different drugs. The brand managers want to spend their dollars as efficiently as possible to make the media work harder against people that are suffering and that are in the funnel,” says Doyle.

Of course, 2022 was a horrible year for the flu, RSV and seemingly irrepressible COVID-19. The so-called tripledemic is certainly a factor in increased Rx spending. And the number of prescriptions dispensed in the U.S. has grown steadily during the past decade, increasing from 3.95 billion in 2009 to 6.47 billion in 2021, according to Statistica “The massive numbers are being skewed to a degree by the time that we're in,” Doyle says. “However, I don't think that's still reflective of what's happening with pharma adopting more audio.”

Long, tedious disclaimers in ads aren’t much of an issue any longer, at least not for advertisers. Research conducted on the buy side shows disclaimers aren’t perceived as a negative for listeners suffering from the condition the spot addresses. They’re much more focused on the solution portion of the copy.

Veritone One and other agencies specializing in audio are steering more pharma dollars to radio by offering brands a holistic package that puts creative, media buying and post-campaign analytics all under one roof. “The old days of agencies just buying cost per point and saying, ‘Have a nice day,’ that's not enough to justify the investments in audio,” Doyle observes. There is a growing trend to be able to show the efficacy of your media as part of the plan.”

Much of the new ad targeting apparatus making its way to broadcast radio was already in place at digital audio. Podcasting is another piece in pharma’s audio matrix because it can help humanize the conditions people are suffering from. “You can lean into talent to talk about different symptoms,” Doyle explains. “It's not a reach game, it’s an impact play. That's how it works together. But broadcast is the king for these guys.”

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