The Checkout

Drug Ads: Taking Medicine Never Looked So Good

Remember all those tricks drugmakers used to get you to take medicine as a kid? They made cough syrup sweet and acetaminophen chewable. They transformed horse pill vitamins into friendly cartoon characters.

Well, perhaps a better approach would've been to inundate you with ads--ones that depict a fearful and alone child who becomes happy, confident and popular after taking a pill.

That formula, it seems, works well on millions of Americans, who watch as many as 16 hours of prescription drug ads every year -- far more than the average time spent with a primary care physician.

Since the Food and Drug Administration relaxed restrictions on direct-to-consumer advertising 10 years ago, commercials touting prescription cures for everything from insomnia to heart burn to erectile dysfunction have become ubiquitous, if not any less mysterious. (I never understand what any of those medicines do, except potentially provoke the gross list of side effects muttered at lightening speed at the end of the ad.)

Direct-to-consumer ads cost Big Pharma $1.19 billion in 2005, up from $654 million in 2001.

The question is, do all those ads help consumers make health care decisions or are they just convincing people they need treatments for conditions they don't have?

Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler thinks prescription drug ads are causing us to overmedicate. In an editorial that accompanied the study, he offered sleeping pills as an example. One-third of direct-to-consumer ad spending in 2005 was on sleep medications, yet sleep disorders are no where near a major cause of death in the United States the way heart disease and cancer are. He also cited a 2002 FDA survey of doctors, which found that 41 percent believed such ads don't help to inform consumers but actually give them bad information.

Given the importance of ads in health-care decisions, a group of researchers lead by Dominick L. Frosch, of the University of California - Los Angeles Department of Medicine, chose to dissect four weeks worth of prescription drug ads from 2004. Their findings are in the latest issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.

Some nuggets from the report:
- 86 percent of the ads made rational pitches for a drug but only about a quarter described the condition's causes, risk factors and prevalence. When ads did refer to prevalence, they used vague terms such as "millions."

- 95 percent made emotional appeals by framing medication use in terms of losing and regaining control and winning social approval. (Picture once-beleaguered allergy sufferers running merrily, nostrils flared, through a weed-filled field.)

- None of the ads mention lifestyle change as an alternative to products, though some -- 19 percent -- mentioned it as an adjunct to medication. And 18 percent of ads made lifestyle changes seem futile, such as an ad that featured a woman who ran three miles every day and ate 50-calorie salads for lunch but whose cholesterol was 277 mg/dL.

- More than half the ads show people engaging in moderate physical activity -- the one silver lining in the study.

"Portrayal of healthy lifestyles in the ads... may offer some public health benefits" by promoting the benefits of physical activity, the authors noted.

In response to criticism of aggressive prescription drug marketing, especially following the flurry of lawsuits filed over the heavily promoted painkiller Vioxx, some pharmaceutical companies have volunteered to wait a year after a drug is approved to begin advertising, but the study's authors say that's not enough. They need to address the content of the ads, too.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association responded to the study more specifically yesterday saying such advertising "empowers patients," and increases "people's awareness of diseases and available treatments." The trade group also noted that it came out with guidelines for direct-to-consumer ads that address some of the study's concerns. Those took effect in January 2006, but the study doesn't reflect changes made by drugmakers since then because it only looked at ads from 2004.

Has anyone noted an improvement in prescription drug ads? Or do the study's findings still resonate with what you see? More importantly, do you feel like you've learned valuable health information after watching Abe Lincoln sitting around a kitchen table talking to a beaver?

By Annys Shin |  January 30, 2007; 9:00 AM ET Marketing
Previous: How Many Gs for That Diploma? | Next: McDonald's Guessing Game: Where's the Trans Fat?


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I know! It almost makes you want herpes, just so you can go sailing and ride horses!

Posted by: Chris | January 30, 2007 12:20 PM

PS- I want to see people depicted operating heavy machinery and doing active things after taking sleep aids! That would make for a great commercial. LOL.

To make it more personal, I take Advair. It is a steroid to strengthen lungs of people with Asthma. I have noticed a bit of improvement, but I also am scared to take it as it actually INCREASES the likelyhood of Asthma related death. Talk about the cure being worse than the disease. To anyone I say read the fine print and make an informed decision. You do not want your quality of life to suffer too much, but you also do not want to open yourself up to a host of other problems. Weigh the risks and do not just bite on what the ad shows you.

Posted by: Chris | January 30, 2007 12:25 PM

I've found no appreciable change in content or annoyance level...this country has a major problem with aging, witness by the concentration of medications offered to help erectile dysfunction. What I find most irritating is that these medications being touted - your physician should be telling you about these first, not some advertisement. Many of these ads are so vague, one has a hard time figuring out what problem they cure.

I say - ban them on TV - I don't have a problem with print ads as much - I can pass over them, or read the details more closely.

And while we're on the subject - how many people are sick of the maxoderm commercials? I'm to the point where I think I'm going to call the stations and tell them I have this urge to switch channels permanently until they stop those ads. They're sleazy! While we're at it, get rid of Enzyte too.

Posted by: Michelle | January 30, 2007 12:35 PM

I firmly believe patients should decide what medications they need (or don't need)with the advice of their doctor, and not television commercials.

Unfortunately, doctors 1) don't spend much time with each patient, and 2) are generally very happy to write whatever scrip will get them on to the next appointment.

The problem isn't just with commercials, which by themselves aren't that harmful. It is with the whole system. Commercials advertise life-changing drugs, busy and overworked doctors write a scrip, and patients take unecessary or unsuitable drugs.

The only built-in protection is a responsible pharmacist. I've had a pharmacist on more than one occasion tell me the prescription I brought in would interact negatively with another prescription I was already on -- something I think a doctor should know.

Posted by: not drugged | January 30, 2007 1:13 PM

Wow! I never thought the pharmaceutical industry would be promoting their products in a way that would influence patients to seek their products & better their lives sooo much..! Popularity, happiness, all the feel-good things that the American population "demands right now & will pay big money" - I wonder if the insurance companies have anything to do with it too..?.?

Kinda like beer and cigarette commercials, eh? Maybe not like fast cars, hip clothes, or sports equipment. We are talking about dangerous substances put into the body to 'help' better lives.

What a sham -- good luck though b/c the lobbyist group for the rx/medical industry is much more powerful than the cigarette industry (alcohol too but they continue to dominate, but that's another story :)

Posted by: Jake Steeley | January 30, 2007 1:29 PM

While I agree ads for medications have blossomed, each ads ends with "Talk to your doctor to see if '_________' is right for you".

Over medication is an issue of doctors providing the medication.

Seems like many doctors are working for the drug companies.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 30, 2007 1:34 PM

Annys: The last line of your article was one of the funniest things I've read in a long time. Very insightful article, of course, but thank you for the laugh! You are right on the money!

Posted by: Lizzy | January 30, 2007 1:34 PM

True Jake, but at least the side effect of drinking alcohol IS the desired effect...well... except the headache, nausia, vomiting, beer goggles some experience... Gosh, beer needs a better warning label! LOL! Anyway, the purpose and effects of alcohol are transparent. The prescription drug industry, not so much- from the way they market, to the way they patent genes and prevent the release of real cures so they can make more money, rather than use advanced science to really heal people. Makes me want to rant about the purposefully slow transition to alternative fuels. The longer it drags on, the more certain people are making.

Posted by: Chris | January 30, 2007 1:39 PM

This is not all that is wrong with drug ads. Read the press release:

Posted by: Lee Kent Hempfling | January 30, 2007 2:01 PM

Since when are vitamin supplements considered medicine? It frightens me to think of the possibility of taking a drug just because ... Too many drugs for symptoms that would probably go away if people stopped watching TV alone! For example, something to help you sleep after you watched some disgusting graphic lewd imagery that would make anyone cringe followed by lightening speed commercials that give you a headache! I wouldn't be able to sleep after that.. I don't watch it. People are sensitized to these things. It's sad to me. I agree that laughter will always be the best medicine according to the Bible. There are so many alternatives too. Such as excersize, massage, chiropractic approaches, herbs, counseling, prayer, the list goes on. Anyone interested in doing a commercial for these? And get this, the side effects combat the symptoms! Not create a bigger problem! Our society is in for a big surprise someday if we don't wake up America!!! It grieves my spirit how young some of these kids are that are on all kinds of meds. There's a better way.

Posted by: Donna | January 30, 2007 2:06 PM

I have always been wary of the overuse of medication. I think people seem to forget that humans have survived for thousands and thousands of years without the piles of meds advertised on television.

Posted by: Burnley Wilkins | January 30, 2007 2:09 PM

TV ads for prescription drugs proliferate because they are (sadly) increasing sales of these drugs. These ads work because of the human tendency to believe that a "Magic Bullet" can overcome any physical or mental condition... as though the condition exists due to a deficiency of some strange never before heard of molecule. However, the truth is that there is not a single known case of anyone dying from a deficiency of Actonel, Avodart, Boniva, Celebrex, Cialis, Coreg, Crestor, Detrol, Ditropan, Enbrel, Fosamax, Humira, Levitra, Lunesta, Nexium, Paxil, Plavix, Premarin, Prilosec, Procrit, Strattera, Valtrex, Vesicare, Viagra, Vioxx, Vytorin, Wellbutrin, Zelnorm, Zocor or Zyprexa, there are thousands of known cases of death due to their side effects. Why? Because... Never in the history of human evolution has the human digestive system ever seen a molecule of any prescription drug. Your system sees all of this stuff as poison. WAKE UP FOLKS! There simply are NO magic bullets. The way to health is moderate consumption of nutritious whole foods as close to the way nature delivers them as possible, 8 hours of sleep each night, no toxins (pick any from the above list, for example), moderate daily exercise and an accepting and forgiving state of mind. This will save you thousands of dollars over the course of your lifetime and prolong your life well beyond that of your pill-popping neighbors.

Posted by: Jack K. | January 30, 2007 2:15 PM

Big Pharma does not spend money unless it makes money. If they spend $1 billion on silly ads it is because they are making $10 billion from them. The Docs get paid for an office visit and Big Pharma gets paid for the pills. What does the public get? Really get?

Posted by: Steve | January 30, 2007 2:27 PM

Exposing a phenomenal mastery of writing, Shin's argument is expertly constructed and provides a truly captivating, critical analysis of an issue easily overlooked, but one that nonetheless permeates in our over-medicated (or at least over-advertised) society. The article informs, provokes and intrigues; it is everything I hope for from the Washington Post.

Posted by: news reader | January 30, 2007 2:29 PM

To add to Burnley Wilkins's comment, the Chinese have been around for 6000+ years with using only herbs and roots for medications. Maybe we should take note.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 30, 2007 2:32 PM

News Reader, now that you have seen the good side, read the awful article about how secondhand smoke is not bad for you by Gori. LOL! comments too.

Posted by: Chris | January 30, 2007 2:34 PM

Anybody notice the ad that appears from time to time on this blog. It's an ad for skin repair meds with a picture of a back side of a woman in a bathing suit.
Annys is preaching good stuff and the Post is receiving money to promote bad stuff.
Double negative in its purest form.
I bet Annys doesn't even know that the Post is dropping these random ads beside her story. Way to go Post. You cease to amaze me. Way to contradict one of your writers.....again.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 30, 2007 2:39 PM

Gotta say the Lincoln/Beaver debate had me stumped when I first saw it. I find that watching drug commercials with the sound off is fascinating. You suddenly notice and read all the "other" information. For example, a weight loss pill getting a lot of air play on less expensive channels, let's you know, in wee small letters, that weight loss averaged 3 lbs over the course of 8 weeks. Unfortunately, having the sound down prevents me from hearing my favorite ad phrase, "stubborn belly fat."

Posted by: field | January 30, 2007 2:40 PM

My doctor kept prescribing cholesterol medications one after the other. Niaspan was the first - and it gave me unbearable muscle pain. Then he prescribed Lopid - which also can give same muscle-pains. It is a known fact that muscle-pain and muscle-degeneration can be caused by these medications. But the doctor is persistent. I did not take Lopid, and am not taking any medication for cholesterol now. The funny thing is, that my cholesterol levels were not really very bad when he prescribed the medications.


Posted by: Rajesh Kumar | January 30, 2007 3:00 PM

Contrary to what the author implies, I find that the side effects "muttered at high speed", tend to put this viewer right off the advertised drug!

Posted by: Ron Garrett | January 30, 2007 3:03 PM

I ignore drug advertisments. Even if I could figure out what exactly the drug does, my HMO prescription plan probably doesn't cover it.

Regarding prescription sleep medications in particular: They all say that you shouldn't take them unless you can get 8 hours of sleep. I don't know until 1 or 2:00 in the morning if I'm having insommia. By that time, I've got only 4 or 5 hours to sleep and would be better off staying up watching infomercials.

Posted by: WMA | January 30, 2007 3:32 PM

Thanks for bringing this subject to the forefront - let's not forget Pharma's twin brother, (er, acomplice), medical insurance. Sure, they'll take good care of you, that is, until you become chronically ill and/or broke. It's all about the money. I'm sure deception was just as prevelent before drug advertising - now their actions are out there for all the world to see.

Posted by: Elise | January 30, 2007 3:45 PM

Thanks for bringing this subject to the forefront - let's not forget Pharma's twin acomplice, (er, brother), medical insurance. Sure, they'll take good care of you, that is, until you become chronically ill and/or broke. It's all about big money. I'm sure deception was just as prevelent before drug advertising - now their actions are out there for all the world to see.

Posted by: Elise | January 30, 2007 3:51 PM

The drug company ads are so pervasive that they actually turn me off. When 50% or more of magazine ads are from drug companies, when you can't watch TV without them selling you a cure all for something you didn't even know needed fixed...well I see where my money goes: to produce more of these ads! If they knocked it off, people might be able to afford the drugs, since they'd lower the price with a smaller ad budget. I specifically ask for generics in the event I have to take medicine to heal. I'm not a stupid consumer. I know how to discuss the options with my doctor, but I'm hard pressed to believe the drug companies hold me in the same esteem.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | January 30, 2007 4:20 PM

I subscribe to because it provides useful, researched-based information on medications and lifestyle alternatives. I do this to protect myself from physicians who enjoy too many perks and financial incentives from drug companies and from ads that deceive and promise more than they can deliver. Don't be put off by the "worst pills" moniker; their advice is actually very positive and objective.

Posted by: Brian | January 30, 2007 4:25 PM

Additionally, if a company was downright honest and showed VISUALLY the common side effects of taking the drug (increased risk for heart attack, dry mouth, an erection that doesn't go down for a day) instead of burying them in barely legible microprint, they'd have a convert. I like honesty.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | January 30, 2007 4:26 PM

I agree with newsreader. This was a very good article, and actually well-written too. Such articles are a rarety these days. Too bad it will not make it out of this blog into the print edition.

The first writer for this blog was a horrible, confused person, but Annys has made us forget about that by turning out high quality work.

Posted by: bkp | January 30, 2007 4:30 PM

get rid of the commercials, which should reduce the cost of drugs and leave it up to the doctors to keep us informed as to what to us when we have a most commercials are becoming obnoxious in their presentations and some difficult to explain to young children...

Posted by: Steve | January 30, 2007 4:55 PM

The major network news programs used to have a rational mix of, corporate ads, etc. but now watching the news is a chore because every commercial is for a drug. The mute button on my remote gets a workout because I refuse to listen to any of these ads anymore. The side effects of the drugs that are advertised are almost comical because many of them have side effects almost as bad as the disease or condition they are supposed to be curing or remedying. In fact, the worst side effects are often the SAME conditions of the actual condition the drug is being advertised for...that's strange and scary at the same time. As for me, I reach for organic, natural food when I listen to these crazy ads big pharma runs everyday...knowing that I'm taking care of myself without drugs.

Posted by: Chris Larson | January 30, 2007 5:03 PM

Yes, it was probably a bad idea to let pharmaceutical manufacturers engage in unfettered TV advertising. But now that they do, there is a less obvous problem hidden in all the handwringing about overprescribing, which is that many people who need advertised medications will decide not to get them, because of biased, distorted or just plain cheesy advertisements.

Dirk Hanson

Posted by: Dirk Hanson | January 30, 2007 5:45 PM

Employ a proofreader: "lightening" should be "lightning", "no where near" should be "nowhere near". And, while a group of people can sit around a table, I don't think just one person can, even if he's Abe Lincoln.

Posted by: Chris Schultz | January 30, 2007 6:26 PM

I recall Abe Lincoln talking to a beaver, have seen the ad many times, but cannot tell you what was being advertised.

Posted by: Doug Hardie | January 30, 2007 6:43 PM

I agree that pharma ads distort the truth; however, I disagree that the outcome is simply over-medicated individuals. The question of interest is: are the right drugs going to the right people? I would argue, no. If you want to get the right drug ask what a doctor thinks, not what the drug company thinks.

Posted by: Nathan | January 30, 2007 6:56 PM

The drug mfg are using very unethical TV ads to further their fortunes.

Congress should act with cease and desist.

Doctors are the ones to recommend drug types and not give in to patients conceived fears brought on by TV ads.

Posted by: Blackwell | January 30, 2007 7:44 PM

Ask your doctor! ??
I'd say these ads give doctors a bad name.

Posted by: poppins | January 30, 2007 9:35 PM

Good article. There is another medical procedure that is advertised in a fashion that is even more egregious than prescription drugs. That procedure is LASIK. I have never seen an advertisement state the risks even though the risks are significant. Try functioning with damaged eyes. Listed below are two links to review. One is a "news" article from a top academic institution on LASIK that caters to the myth that LASIK is a 20 minute miracle ("the next morning, the world is suddenly a much clearer place"). The other lists the real risks of LASIK.

Posted by: Steve | January 30, 2007 10:55 PM

Steve, if you or anyone are considering eye surgery- I went with PRK- it is tried and true. There are ALWAYS risks, but much less than with lasik- once you heal with PRK you are done. The pain level is higher- and was awful for me since pain meds do not work on me like they do for most humans... However, as someone who wore glasses since the 4th grade, I am now glad to be free of them and have somewhere between 20-20 and 20-15 vision. The only side effects I had was light sensitivity the first few weeks and dry eyes for about 5 months.
With lasik you have a flap that can come undone a decade later. With PRK there is no such flap. The procedure was over with in about a minute once everything was prepped. It was like a little bit of torture, but once it was over I could see without glasses and my eyesight steadily adjusted/improved over a few months. The long term effect is that I will probably need reading glasses when I am older- but that was something I counted on anyway, and a worthwhile trade since I had to wear my coke bottle glasses ALL the time anyway. So I am free from them for now!

Posted by: Chris | January 31, 2007 8:13 AM

xxx dvd

Posted by: xxx dvd | February 5, 2007 3:39 AM

adult dvd

Posted by: adult dvd | February 5, 2007 3:55 AM

porn dvd

Posted by: porn dvd | February 5, 2007 4:42 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company