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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Direct to Consumer is Great, but Marketers Must Pick Their Battles

Advertising has always, to some extent, focused on consumer values. A curiosity-driven search into the past shows plenty of ads aimed at women encouraging them to buy products in order to be better wives to their husbands, for instance. It’s a reflection of the prevailing social and cultural values of the western world at that time, showing what advertisers thought their consumers wanted and what consumers thought they could get from the brands they identified with. This kind of advertising to value-driven consumers hasn’t changed a bit in the last seventy-odd years, but what has changed is the cultural landscape itself, and the kinds of occasionally difficult or controversial choices marketers must make in order to appeal to those consumers.

What “values” means in today’s cultural milieu is more complicated and usually more divisive than it used to be. That means that marketers must be careful and take calculated risks when trying to reach a millennial generation that, more than ever, incorporates their cultural values into their purchasing decisions. Enter Direct-to-Consumer or DTC advertising, wherein marketers attempt to more closely identify themselves and their brands with the values and attitudes of their customers. This tactic can, predictably, backfire, when businesses try too hard to signal cultural values without substance, or incorrectly assume that their targeted demographics will respond positively to certain trending topics unwholesomely mashed together. Pepsi’s disastrous ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner springs immediately to mind, seeming to conflate serious political movements with musical performances and back-handedly suggesting that everything would be just fine if everyone sat down and drank a soda.

Targeting values-oriented customers has worked, however, for companies that take their campaigns, and their targeted demographics, seriously. Nike’s partnership with Colin Kaepernick, Dove’s “real beauty” campaign, and Gillette’s ads targeted towards promoting healthy concepts of masculinity are all excellent examples of values-based campaigns performing admirably. The key is to understand the demographic and their values, and to connect more directly with them. There is plenty of evidence that brands are taking this approach more and more seriously. L’oreal is quietly undertaking a massive DTC campaign for a new line of hair color products that intends to provide a completely personalized experience for every single customer, through short consultations with trained hair coloring specialists. The company is not currently planning any large mass-market advertising campaigns to promote this new product line, opting to focus entirely on the DTC method. Disney, one of the world’s biggest companies, is also putting many of its proverbial eggs into the DTC basket. The company lost almost $400 million pushing their DTC efforts in the first quarter of this year, more than double last year’s. These losses are part of a hedged bet that their investment will pay off in the long term – Disney is losing money by refusing to license their content to other providers, money that would likely have more than made up for their losses, but by putting down and committing to their DTC infrastructure, especially in streaming, they hope to more than make up for those losses in the future.

For now, the safest bet is still traditional advertising through an SEO agency or similarly experienced marketing firm. But some companies are still insisting on pushing the envelope, and could be pushing too far. Millennial shoppers already spend close to a trillion dollars every year in the marketplace, and it’s understandable that brands and businesses are more eager than ever to tap into these markets and find ways to connect with increasingly out of touch consumers. And yet, a dark side has shown itself in new DTC advertising methods targeted at consumers in the field of prescription drugs.

Advertising and marketing should, ideally, be centered around organic outreach and growth, finding ways to connect people who want or need something with the product or service that can benefit them the most. DTC marketing for prescription drugs violates these tenets in several important ways. First, it bypasses the person most qualified to make a judgment about what the consumer actually needs, namely, the doctor. While a loosely targeted advertising campaign can’t stop a patient from receiving medical advice, doctors reported feeling pressured to prescribe medications after patients mentioned seeing them in advertisements. These aren’t isolated incidents that occur in a contextual void, either – studies have found that DTC ads have led to an increase in prescriptions, which, coincidentally or not, aligns conveniently with an overall increase in prescriptions being given to Americans over the last 16 years, almost double what the figures used to be in the early 90s.

DTC marketing techniques may be irresponsible in this context, and although marketing drugs directly to consumers is not necessarily the cause of one of the worst opioid epidemics in the modern history of the United States, it’s certainly not a good look, especially for an industry increasingly trying to position itself as conscious of emerging popular cultural values, and it will likely stand in the future as a lesson on the merits of responsibility – nut just to consumers themselves, but to their values as well.

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