Taking a page from the pharmaceutical marketing textbook, General Electric Co. is pitching its newest high-ticket medical device directly to consumers in an advertising campaign that offers dividends for both its GE Medical Systems unit and its hospital customers.
Already reaping the rewards of direct-to-consumer advertising paid for by GE is Johns Hopkins Medicine, the earliest U.S. adopter of the GE Discovery LS, a hybrid scanner that marries the technologies of computed tomography and positron emission tomography.
On July 11, barely three weeks after Johns Hopkins took possession of the $2.7 million scanner, GE got a call from a man in Winston-Salem, N.C., who had seen a television commercial advertising the device. The caller said he wanted his wife examined on the unit and wanted to know where he could find one.
Last week, the man planned to drive his wife the 385 miles to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a scan on the first clinically available Discovery in a U.S. hospital, said Charles Young, GE's general manager of global marketing.
GE insisted the marketing strategy veers away from the direct-to-consumer prescription drug ads that shower the airwaves and increasingly are coming under fire by consumer groups. Obviously, GE said, it doesn't expect any single patient to purchase the Discovery or even persuade a local hospital or doctor to buy one. But if enough consumers begin asking about them, it believes that might persuade hospitals to consider an investment in the expensive technology.
"It is certainly an ad that helps build awareness of Discovery," Young said. "But it's a program designed to help build brand awareness of GE and also help educate viewers-the mainstream public and customers."
At the time of Discovery's June 21 launch, GE already had sold two scanners in the U.S.-one to Johns Hopkins and one to East River Medical Imaging Associates in New York.
The company said it expects to install 30 systems worldwide by the end of the year. GE, which is not the first or only company offering the technology, is touting the Discovery as a major advance in the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
The commercial for the Discovery, unveiled as part of the spectacular launch at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, began airing a week later primarily on Sunday morning public-affairs programs, with a target audience that includes the "GE investor or healthcare decisionmaker," Young said. However, well aware that potential patients also will be watching, GE exploits the minute of paid airtime to explain the technology with a simple, personal story before advising, "Ask your doctor about it."
Young declined to disclose the cost of the campaign but says, "It falls into a few big buckets that include print in the trade media and broadcast coverage focused more on the U.S." Advertising costs are "minute" compared with the $500 million GE spends annually on research and development, Young said. And having a television network in its corporate stable, as GE has with NBC, doesn't seem to make much difference: Young said ads are not running solely on NBC but where the target audience can best be found.
Standard operating procedure
GE's television ads, which for nearly a generation have boasted, "We bring good things to life," are nothing new for either GE's medical unit or the corporate parent. The Discovery commercial is just one of four recent ads promoting GE's medical technology. Commercials also have been touting GE's conventional CT scanner, its open magnetic resonance imager and digital mammography units, Young said.
Young said he has taken calls similar to the one from the Winston-Salem man for the other GE medical devices advertised on television. A year ago, he said he took a call from a California man who wanted to know where he could take his claustrophobic wife for an open MRI, and there have been hundreds of calls from women seeking access to digital mammography systems, he said.
The Discovery does have at least one competitor, but viewers probably won't see an ad for it on television. CTI PET Systems, which manufactures the Biograph in a joint venture with Siemens Medical Systems, Iselin, N.J., and CTI, Knoxville, Tenn., has no plans to take the message directly to consumers, according to Siemens.
However, Siemens' corporate parent has advertised major technologies on television for about 10 years and has just launched a $25 million, 18-month branding campaign, said Earnest Thompson, director of corporate marketing and branding. The spots will touch on Siemens' four major areas of technology: healthcare, information and communications, industry and automation, and energy and power. The healthcare ad led the campaign and debuted during the Wimbledon tennis finals.
Thompson said the ads air on shows targeting the company's "C-level" audience: chief executive, financial and information officers. That translates to Sunday morning news programs, sports and some cable channels where research shows senior-level executives are watching.
"Siemens is known in vertical segments, but we are trying to establish brand awareness of the broad capabilities we have," Thompson said. "We're trying to reach our target audience in a different part of their lives. We're never going to be (advertising during) `Friends.' We're going to be (advertising during the shows) where we know our audience will be."
Not surprisingly, medical device manufacturers would want to distance themselves from any suggestion that they are bypassing doctors and hospitals by marketing their high-priced technologies directly to consumers, as some accuse pharmaceutical companies of doing. Earlier this month, consumer-health organization Families USA issued a report charging that marketing and advertising costs are fueling high prescription-drug prices and that the cost of research and development pales next to what drug companies spend to promote their products.
Representatives at the Radiological Society of North America and AdvaMed, the device industry's trade association, said they were not aware of any groups that are tracking direct-to-consumer advertising expenditures in the medical device industry. Even the Food and Drug Administration, which strictly regulates direct-to-consumer drug advertisements, has little to say about marketing medical devices, a spokeswoman there said. Advertising for medical devices, like much advertising, primarily falls under the purview of the Federal Trade Commission, she said.
Helping hospitals draw customers
Indeed, rather than characterizing the television promotions as an end-run around hospitals and doctors, GE sees it as a partnership. Indeed, GE's offer of free marketing support plays a part in its sales pitch to customers.
"If you're a hospital getting the latest, greatest technology, that's a competitive advantage, so we provide marketing materials so they can highlight it in their own communities," Young said. "A key priority is to help our customers educate their patients, so our goal is to try to help them bring visibility to the technology."
At least one customer, Richard Katz, M.D., president of East River Medical Imaging Associates, welcomes the support, although whether it will generate direct referrals remains to be seen, he said. The diagnostic imaging center purchased the first commercially available Discovery on the day of its launch-on the Internet at GE's request. He is hoping for delivery in October.
Katz said that in the past, GE commercials for digital mammography seemed to generate calls from patients asking about its availability. Ironically, East River discontinued mammography services on July 1 because of poor reimbursement rates.
"I think informing the public that (the Discovery) exists is a great service," Katz said. "In general with imaging equipment, if the statements are true, then I think anything that educates the public about medicine is good."