Health Marketing

Take This, You'll Like It

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Drug ads on TV may move you, but they often reveal little about the condition the advertised product is supposed to treat. So finds a new study in the Annals of Family Medicine. "The ads use emotion rather than information to promote the drugs," said study author Dominick Frosch, a clinical health psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "They frequently leave out important facts about the causes and risks of a condition [and] overstate the benefit of the drugs." The commercials, Frosch said, tempt people to seek prescriptions they may not need or that may not be the best or cheapest remedy, omitting mention of diet and lifestyle changes that might work as well for them.

Prime-Time Pitch For their study, Frosch and colleagues analyzed the content of 38 pharmaceutical ads that aired (2.7 times each, on average) over 90 hours of evening network TV in 2004. Many implied that a drug could give people renewed control over their lives or earn them social approval. In one ad for a cholesterol-lowering drug, for example, a character in a desolate urban setting runs to a doctor's office, obtains a prescription and, upon leaving, enters sunny suburbia, where a smiling neighbor and happy family await.

Diagnosis at Odds"Although none of these findings are surprising, they should be disturbing," said David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and now dean of the medical school at the University of California at San Francisco. In a prepared statement, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing major drugmakers, said the study has "little relevance" because it analyzed old ads, and drug companies' commercials now adhere to new guidelines. "The study does not reflect any of the positive changes in . . . advertisements over the past 12 months," the statement said. Kessler expressed skepticism. "On balance, there has been little progress" since 2004, he said.

-- Ben Harder


© 2007 The Washington Post Company