US drugmakers’ spending on the relatively new area of “unbranded” product advertising - which takes advantage of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations stating that ads which do not name the drug directly do not have to list its side-effects – has plummeted, new figures show.

Spending on such ads – which simply direct the viewer to a website which promotes the product and does list its side effects – fell 3% to $2.4 billion in first-half 2008 compared to the first six months of 2007, according to the latest data from advertising information service provider Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

Overall spending on advertising by pharmaceutical companies in the US was also down in the first half of this year, sliding 5% to $2.6 billion. This is the first such decline to be recorded; as late as last September, pharma was bucking the downward trend for industry as a whole with a reported 2.6% increase in advertising spending to more than $3.8 billion during the first three quarters of 2007.

Moreover, drugmakers spent only $138 million on health education and corporate image advertising in first-half 2008, compared to $341 million for the whole of 2007 and $660 million in 2006, according to the Nielsen Monitor-Plus data, which also reveal that spending by the USA’s biggest advertiser, Procter & Gamble, fell 8% to $1.6 billion in first-half 2008.

As the US economy contracts, nobody is expecting a revival anytime soon, and the industry magazine BrandWeek says that many smaller drugmakers are in any case abandoning television and print advertising in favour of building consumer education websites, which are not only cheaper but more long-lasting that TV ads.