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The Pulse of the Pharmaceutical Industry

Survey: Doctors Say Clarity Trumps All When It Comes to Advertising

Written by: | | Dated: Wednesday, December 12th, 2018


Columbus, Ohio, December 12, 2018 – When it comes to advertising, 76 percent of primary care physicians (PCPs) prefer companies use simple language according to a survey conducted by GSW, a Syneos HealthTM company and industry leader in healthcare advertising, in partnership with The Harris Poll.

The online Harris Poll survey among U.S. PCPs uncovered behaviors toward and attitudes around all advertising and creativity. The goal was to gain a deeper understanding of today’s physicians,  what motivates them,  their perceptions toward communications trends and their preferences.

“With this survey we found that our Speak People mantra approach to advertising and communications–which focuses on driving meaningful healthcare conversations–is on point and remains relevant. It is about listening to whomever our audience is—whether it’s patients, providers, payers or specialty pharmacists—hearing what they’re up against and teeing things up in a way that’s truly understandable,” said Sonja Foster-Storch, President, GSW-North America. “Bottom-line, if you want to make stronger human connections, insights and language matters.”

The survey revealed that a large majority of PCPs (79%) understand how people can be confused by the messaging in advertising. And for them personally, many doctors admit they are not always clear themselves on what is being communicated in advertising, with PCPs saying they: 

  • More than half sometimes do not understand what is being communicated in an advertisement (51%)
  • More than a third sometimes get confused by messaging in advertising (39%)
  • More than a third are sometimes overwhelmed by the language used in advertising (35%)


Creativity Matters

When it comes to advertising, PCPs enjoy being entertained. Approximately six in 10 PCPs say they enjoy being entertained by advertising (61%), and over half say they are influenced by creative advertising (56%). Thinking about ads they have liked in the past, many liked the ads being funny (62%), creative (51%), or unique (49%). 

PCPs voice much respect for creativity saying creativity is:

  • an admirable trait (97%)
  • can’t be learned (49%)
  • consider themselves a creative person (65%)
  • wish they had more freedom to be creative in their professional life (68%)
  • wish they had more freedom to be creative in their personal life (75%) 


Head Wins over Heart for Most PCPs

The survey also found that PCPs don’t all share one homogenous personality but rather offer a blend of diverse (and sometimes competing) character traits. PCPs appreciate collaboration in theory, as well as an openness to new and different ideas, with the majority saying it is important for them to be open to others’ opinions (87%) or collaborate with others (74%).  At the same time, the majority of PCPs say it is important to them to be a leader (59%). Most say they make decisions easily (77%) and are often not swayed by the opinions of others (66%).

The majority of PCPs believe they personally behave more analytically than emotionally. More than 3 in 4 say they typically make decisions with their head, not their heart (83%); they consider themselves more analytical than emotional (80%); and they prefer practical ideas over imaginative ideas (74%).  Nonetheless, 2 in 3 PCPs (66%) say they openly express their emotions.


Communicating with Simplicity

Current draft FDA guidelines for consumer print advertising recognize the importance of both simplicity and creativity to create better understanding of health benefits and risks for patients.

GSW applauds the FDA guidance and research behind it, however, like any regulatory guidance the language can be difficult to navigate. GSW offers the following tips for healthcare companies when considering the guidelines:

  1. Take a conversational tone — “FDA strongly encourages the use of consumer-friendly language in all consumer-directed materials. The consumer brief summary should be written in language designed for understanding by a broad target audience with various levels of literacy skills.”
  2. Get better at prioritizing and editing — “FDA’s current thinking is that the consumer brief summary should provide clinically significant information on the most serious and the most common risks associated with the product and omit less pertinent information.”
  3. Establish a design and information hierarchy — “Different techniques can be used to assist consumers with comprehension of information. For example, signals, such as headlines and subheadings, help communicate important information”
  4. Show us more white space — “Using double spacing between paragraphs and indentations, as opposed to plain block paragraphs, helps maximize background space (also called white space) and improves readability.”
  5. Show us new thinking — “The examples included throughout are intended to provide guidance and illustrate possible approaches; firms may use alternative approaches if these approaches satisfy the requirements of the statute and regulations.”


“While these may seem like table stakes to good communication, they are much-needed steps in the right direction – toward speaking people in healthcare – that could leave a huge footprint.” added Foster-Storch. “The market and FDA are forcing changes here, moving us closer toward our goal of creating authentic experiences that educate, create conversations and ultimately lead people to getting the treatments they need”

You can view more results and insights to PCPs behaviors and survey results here.



The survey was conducted online in the U.S. by The Harris Poll on behalf of GSW between March 21st and March 31st, 2017. The research was conducted among 302 Primary Care Physicians in the U.S. Figures for years in practice, gender, and region were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population.


About GSW

GSW is a full-service healthcare communications agency that goes beyond advertising to create personalized brand experiences that involve, inspire, educate, and activate people through ongoing brand journeys. Building partnerships with pharmaceutical, biotech, and health-and-wellness clients in 18 major markets around the world, GSW creates marketing solutions through a comprehensive and wide array of services.

Integration with public relations and medical communications agencies at Syneos Health drives complete communications solutions that build corporate and brand value, and deliver on the bottom line.


About The Harris Poll:

The Harris Poll is one of the longest-running surveys in the U.S. tracking public opinion, motivations and social sentiment since 1963 that is now part of Harris Insights & Analytics, a global consulting and market research firm that strives to reveal the authentic values of modern society to inspire leaders to create a better tomorrow. We work with clients in three primary areas; building twenty-first- century corporate reputation, crafting brand strategy and performance tracking, and earning organic media through public relations research. Our mission is to provide insights and advisory to help leaders make the best decisions possible. To learn more, please visit

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