Story at a glance:
- Research from healthcare advertising technology company DeepIntent revealed that 27% of people spoke to their doctor about a medical treatment after they learned about it from an ad.
- Earlier data found that “pharmaceutical ads can empower patients to take a more active role in researching treatments” and “advertising influences patients’ decision to follow through in taking drugs prescribed by their doctors.”
- The most common action that people take after viewing a drug ad is to conduct research, and this research becomes the most important factor in medication adherence — even more than the person’s own previous experience taking the drug.
- Marketers intend to use increasingly targeted ads via your smart TV, cellphone and desktop computer to increase drug sales even more.
- DeepIntent CEO Chris Paquette said in a news release, “We have evidence that more relevant advertising drives real results for our clients.”
Television advertisements for prescription drugs are illegal in virtually every country on the planet — but not in the U.S., where 80 such ads air, on average, every hour on Americans’ televisions.
“Ask your doctor,” the narrators tell viewers, urging them to bring up the latest name-brand drugs at their next physician’s visit.
Before the 1980s, these types of direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads were unheard of, even in the U.S., but within a few decades, they became among the most common public health messages seen by Americans.
This marketing shift turned out to be incredibly lucrative for Big Pharma, but its effects on public health — and individual health — are highly questionable, as the ads continue to drive consumers to request drugs from their doctors, whether they need them or not.
FDA’s loose guidelines paved the way for TV drug ads
Before the 1980s, pharmaceutical companies marketed directly to doctors, instead of to patients. Drug industry executives even told Congress at the time that they believed directly advertising drugs to consumers was not “in the public health interest” and “cannot safely be accomplished.”
A cultural shift soon emerged, however, to empower patients to be more involved in their own healthcare, instead of solely listening to their doctors. Advertisers jumped on the trend but, still, drug advertisements to consumers only appeared in print ads, including in magazines, but not on TV.
This was due to the U.S. FDA’s requirements to include all drug risks and side effects in the ads, which could be done on pages of print but was much more difficult to accomplish on TV or radio commercials.
A strange loophole existed, however, which allowed drug ads to run without stating the risks and side effects, as long as it also didn’t mention the disease the drug was intended to treat. This is highly likely related to the industry finally capturing the federal regulatory agencies responsible for protecting the public.
Not surprisingly, this led to confusion, prompting a loosened requirement from the FDA in 1997, which stated that ads only had to include the drug’s “major” side effects and refer viewers to a source where they could find the rest.
Even if viewers do end up seeking out the full list of side effects, the info seldom scares patients away. Everything is designed to make you tune out the risks and view the drug in a desirable light, from actors who use an appealing voice tone to beautiful images and music choices.
The removal of the requirement to list all drug side effects in ads paved the way for on-air drug ads, and the rest is history. By 2004, annual spending on drug advertisements quadrupled, making name-brand drugs like Lipitor, Lunesta, Xanax and Ambien household names.
Patient requests have ‘profound’ effect on doctors
The profound way it influenced patients was recognized from the start, with critics stating that the ads led to over-prescribing of “unnecessary, expensive and potentially harmful medications.”
By 2005, a randomized controlled trial had been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to determine the influence of patients’ requests for directly advertised drugs, in this case antidepressants.
Patient actors visited physicians, describing symptoms of depression in half of the visits and in the other half stating “they were feeling down,” a description of an adjustment disorder that doesn’t typically require immediate drug treatment.
In some of the visits, the patients mentioned seeing a commercial for the antidepressant Paxil, while in others they didn’t mention any medications.
Patients who mentioned Paxil were more likely to be referred for a mental health consultation and receive a prescription for an antidepressant, whether they were describing symptoms of depression or simply “feeling down.”
According to lead study author Dr. Richard Kravitz, “For us, it typified the double-edged sword which direct-to-consumer advertising represents.”
Prescribing rates for the drugs were highest when patients made general requests for medications — 76% of such visits resulted in a prescription, compared with 31% of those in which the patient made no medication request.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Citizens Journal