The amount of money drug companies spend on TV ads has doubled in recent years. Studies show they work: Consumers go to their doctor with a suggestion for a certain prescription drug they saw advertised on TV. Now a study in the Annals of Family Medicine raises questions about the message the ads promote.
You're most likely to see drug ads during prime time, especially around the news. Researchers analyzed 38 ads aimed at people with conditions like hypertension, herpes, high cholesterol, depression, arthritis and allergies.
The drug industry says the ads arm consumers with information. Researchers found that the information was technicallly accurate, but the tone was misleading.
"Typically, what we would see with these ads is that before taking a particular prescription drug, the character's life is out of control and the loss of control extended beyond the impact of their health condition," says UCLA psychologist Dominick Frosch, who headed the study.
For example, herpes patients were portrayed as being incapacitated for days. Insomniacs were utterly out of synch on the job. Depressed patients were friendless and boring at parties.
"When the character is then shown taking the drug, he then magically regains complete control of his life," Frosch notes.
None of the ads mentioned lifestyle changes that could also help treat the condition. That's not surprising, given that the ads are just another form of mass marketing.
But prescription medicines are not soap.
Dr. David Kessler, dean of the school of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, headed the FDA for seven years, under the first President Bush and then President Clinton. He opposed TV advertising for drugs.
"We tend to forget pharmaceuticals are powerful agents, not just any commodity," he says. "Advertising them based on their emotional appeal is something that has great risks."
After Kessler left the FDA, rules were relaxed and TV ads for drugs were permitted. That was a mistake, Kessler says.
He insists the FDA should be responsible for insuring overall accuracy, both in tone and content. And he says the agency should ask this question:
"Does the ad in the end convey a fairly balanced view of what this drug is going to do — not some wish list?"
Kessler says a complete ban on TV ads for prescription drugs is unlikely, now that ads has been approved. But he says regulation can — and should — be tightened.