And what an unflattering light it is.
It occurs to me that often, when I write about the pharmaceutical
industry, I have something negative to say. Really, my thoughts
are not all negative. It’s just that it is easier to come up with
criticisms when responding to news items.
Anyway, this one (from Washington Post) deserves comment:
Remember all those tricks drugmakers used to get you to take medicine
as a kid? They made cough syrup sweet and acetaminophen chewable. They
transformed horse pill vitamins into friendly cartoon characters.
Well, perhaps a better approach would’ve been to inundate you with
ads–ones that depict a fearful and alone child who becomes happy,
confident and popular after taking a pill.
That formula, it seems, works well on millions of Americans, who watch
as many as 16 hours of prescription drug ads every year — far more
than the average time spent with a primary care physician…
That is an interesting point, that the companies get more time to make
their case than the doctors do. Other versions of the same story,
in other publications are more pointed. For example, this one,
Blasts TV Drug Ads
01.29.07, 12:00 AM ET
MONDAY, Jan. 29 (HealthDay News) — In strong criticism of
the pharmaceutical industry’s marketing practices, new research claims
that televised ads for prescription drugs are riddled with emotional
appeals and lack helpful information on the disease itself.
“The ads really use emotion instead of information to promote drugs,”
said the study’s lead author, Dominick Frosch, an assistant professor
of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles…
…Ninety-five percent of ads made “emotional appeals,” and 78 percent
implied that use of the medication would result in social approval.
Fifty-eight percent of the time, products were depicted as medical
Other versions appear in USA
Today and NewsTarget.com.
The study that prompted these articles was published in Annals of
Family Medicine 5:6-13 (2007). The full text is here; the
accompanying editorial is here.
The authors looked at commercials that aired in prime time on ABC, CBS,
NBC or Fox in 2004. They analyzed 38 different advertisements.
Their biggest beef with the ads is that they rely so heavily on
emotional appeals, associating positive imagery with their
products. They know that the images are what people will
remember, along with the positive association to the products.
I Know from personal experience how effective this is. It is
fairly common for patients to mention the images in the ads, even if
they don’t remember the product name or anything else.
In the editorial, Dr. Stange writes:
While ads present facts and rational arguments, almost all
make emotional appeals for their product. The majority of ads portray
medication use as socially approved and as a way to regain control over
some component of life. Few mention lifestyle approaches as a positive
alternative or convey a balance of treatment options…
…Unsaid in the study or editorial is the tremendous intrusion of such
advertisements into the clinician-patient relationship. These ads suck
precious time, motivation, and energy from the patient visit, forcing
clinicians to educate patients about why a slickly promoted drug is not
as important as a less sexy lifestyle change or even a cheaper but
equally effective alternative medication…
Later on, he points out that the issue is complex:
A recent systematic review concluded that there is good
evidence that direct-to-consumer marketing increases demand, but no
evidence of benefit.7 Other analyzes of the data in the Epstein
study,8,9 however, show a complex relationship between patient demand
and quality of care for a single disease. Patient requests for
antidepressant medication are associated with more depression-specific
history taking, as well as both averting underuse and fostering overuse
of antidepressant medication, without apparently distracting from
history taking for a second musculoskeletal condition presented during
That is the most positive thing in the whole article. The editor
concludes that the use of direct-to-consumer advertisements is “an
unproved public health intervention that raises serious cause for
Of course, the only way to change this would be through administrative
rule changes, or by legislation. Hopefully, studies such as these
will prompt the government into action. And after the
administration and legislature clean up the problems with drug company
ads, they should turn the same attention to their own political