The ads do increase awareness, informing Americans about illnesses, symptoms and treatments that they may know little about. The fact that ads for depression play on TV may have helped reduce the stigma of the mood disorder and led people who might not have otherwise sought help to do so.
The TV ads “inform people that their symptoms may in fact be depression,” says David Bradford, a public policy expert at the University of Georgia who has done research on direct-to-consumer advertising. “They do provide information to people and get them in front of a physician.”
According to numerous studies, the ads increase prescriptions — no surprise, since that’s the goal of advertising.
The content of direct-to-consumer drug ads is regulated by the FDA. That doesn’t mean a government official watches each ad and says yay or nay. Rather, it means that the ads have to abide by guidelines for accuracy, which include stating major side effects and contraindications (people who shouldn’t take the drug) and be balanced in terms of describing benefits and risks.
Not surprisingly, the ads tend to have a positive overall spin, says Niederdeppe, who notes that there is no good way to balance the visuals with the spoken words. “Imagery is a very powerful part of these ads,” he says.
The path between seeing a prescription-drug ad and buying the product is more circuitous than for most TV ads. Consumers still must see a physician, who must write a prescription for that drug. “We trust physicians to help diagnose and help treat,” Bradford says. “We have to be careful about second-guessing what goes on in the examination room.”
The takeaway for those of us who see the ads and recognize some ailment in ourselves?
The experts say the same thing as the ads do: “Talk to your doctor.” But they add a few caveats.
“Be skeptical. Remember, the ads paint a rosy picture,” says Ross, who notes that not everyone benefits from drug treatment.
“Be open-minded about the treatment options your doctor suggests,” Bradford says, even if it does not include the drug you saw advertised on TV.
“If someone is worried about their poor sleep, they absolutely should have a conversation with a doctor about it,” Cooke says. “But starting the conversation with ‘I’d like Lunesta’ is not a good thing.” She says the vast majority of people with sleep complaints should not get sleep medications.