Drug Ads Aim for Emotion, Not Education, Study Finds
Pharmaceutical company television advertisements largely use emotion rather than educating consumers about the risks and causes of a condition or other treatment options, according to a study published Monday in the Annals of Family Medicine, the Washington Post reports.
For the study -- led by Dominick Frosch, a clinical health psychologist at the UCLA -- researchers analyzed the content of 38 pharmaceutical ads that aired over 90 hours of evening network television in 2004 (Harder, Washington Post, 1/30). The ads represented seven of the 10 top-selling prescription drugs of 2004 (Rubin, USA Today, 1/30).
The study found that 95% of the ads appealed to consumers' emotions (Ritter, Chicago Sun-Times, 1/30). For example, more than 90% of the ads portrayed someone as happier after they took the advertised drug. The study also found that 69% of ads depicted a person who was unhappy or in fear prior to taking the advertised drug.
According to the study, 58% of the ads claimed the featured drug was a medical or scientific breakthrough (Prial, Bergen Record, 1/30). None of the ads mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to taking the drug to treat a condition, and 19% suggested lifestyle changes in addition to taking the medication (Chicago Sun-Times, 1/30).
The study found that 25% of ads mentioned risk factors for the condition treated by the drug and 25% of ads mentioned how common or uncommon a particular condition is (USA Today, 1/30).
Frosch said, "The ads use emotion rather than information to promote the drugs. They frequently leave out important facts about the causes and risks of a condition (and) overstate the benefit of the drugs" (Washington Post, 1/30). According to Frosch, by overstating the benefits, the ads "contribute to people believing they need more drugs than they probably need" (Chicago Sun-Times, 1/30).
In an editorial accompanying the study, former FDA commissioner David Kessler and Douglas Levy of the UC-San Francisco write that direct-to-consumer ads "do not effectively or consistently convey important information about product risks and benefits." The authors add, "There is nothing wrong with pharmaceutical companies communicating directly with consumers, but they should adhere to the standards and ethics of medicine, not the standards and ethics of selling soap or some other consumer product that presents minimal risks."
Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical and Research Manufacturers of America, criticized the study for using ads that aired about one year before the industry adopted voluntary guidelines for DTC drug ads. He said, "The study does not reflect any of the positive changes in DTC advertisements over the past 12 months" (USA Today, 1/30).
Sanofi-Aventis spokesperson Melissa Feltmann said, "We believe that [DTC ads are] an important way to help people identify their symptoms and discuss appropriate treatment options" (Bishop, Baltimore Sun, 1/30).
Merck in a statement said, "Our DTC advertising encourages consumers to take action to improve their health, especially seeing their health care provider" (Bergen Record, 1/30).
The study is available online.
The editorial also is available online.