TV Drug Ads Too Emotional, Study Shows
But Pharmaceutical Industry Group Says Study Is Based on Old Data
Jan. 29, 2007 -- Television commercials for prescription drugs play on
viewers' emotions, often lack solid information, and downplay the role of a
healthy lifestyle, according to a new study.
But the pharmaceutical industry begs to differ; industry spokespeople saying
the study is flawed because it relies on information gathered before new
guidelines to improve the commercials took effect.
The impact of the drug commercials is important, both sides agree, because
the typical American TV viewer sees up to 16 hours of these ads, called
direct-to-consumer advertising, every year.
The ads are regulated by the FDA, but the regulations were relaxed in 1997,
and a debate about the effectiveness of the ads has raged ever since.
"The educational value of the ads is pretty modest," says researcher
Dominick L. Frosch, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of
California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine.
Frosch and his colleagues recorded programming for four consecutive weeks
from June 30, 2004, until July 27, 2004, capturing 38 pharmaceutical company
Among the medicines advertised were Actonel for bone density problems,
Cialis and Levitra for erectile dysfunction, Valtrex for genital herpes,
Lipitor for high cholesterol, and Zoloft for depression and social anxiety.
Frosch's team conducted a content analysis of the commercials, evaluating
factual information and the types of appeals to viewers, such as rational,
emotional, humorous, fantasy appeal, sex appeal, or nostalgia.
They also noted how the ads portrayed the role of the drugs in the lives of
the character in the ads and how or if the role of healthy lifestyles was
"Ninety five percent of the ads are using positive emotional appeals --
people looking happy after taking the drugs," Frosch says. The commercials,
he says, present "a very black and white portrait of the benefits of
prescription drugs -- 'Take this drug and everything is going to be back in
For instance, one commercial pitching Valtrex for genital herpes shows a
young woman first saying, "Living with genital herpes can be a hassle."
After taking the drug, the final scene shows her kissing a partner in the surf,
with Rio de Janeiro in the background.
"Lifestyle changes are sometimes mentioned as an adjunct [to taking the
drug]," Frosch says, when in some cases changing behavior -- such as
exercising more to reduce high cholesterol -- might actually prevent the need
for the medication.
But they found that no commercials mentioned lifestyle change as an
alternative to the medication.