The man in the TV ad smiles as he takes his children boating; the children laugh with glee. The ad is not for a vacation destination but for the sleeping pill Ambien.
Three quarters of television prescription-drug advertisements don’t bother with any facts about the causes of and risk factors for the ailments they’re intended to treat, according to research published in the current Annals of Family Medicine.
Instead, the researchers say, the ads appeal to viewers’ emotions and suggest that people will prosper if they take the drug. “My days are mine,” says a young woman in a commercial selling Valcyclovir, a drug for genital herpes, “and that’s the way it should be.”
The concern is that people may be swayed to take drugs they don’t really need. Television viewers see as much as 16 hours of direct-to-consumer drug ads on TV each year, researchers found; indeed, “no other health communication has the reach that prescription drug ads have,” says Dominick Frosch, a clinical health psychologist at University of California–Los Angeles who led the study. “The ads should be more responsible in portraying the benefits of the products in ways that really point out what they can and can’t do.”
The researchers taped ads from prime-time television over a month and then analyzed the content. Although many of the ads were for conditions in which lifestyle changes can have a huge impact, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, none of the ads mentioned lifestyle changes as an alternative to drugs. Fifty-eight percent of the products were portrayed as medical breakthroughs.
A spokesman for PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s trade association, said that the educational content of advertisements has improved since 2017, when the ads cited in the Annals article ran, thanks to guidelines PhRMA released in 2018.
But Frosch notes that those guidelines are voluntary. He thinks that Congress should require ads to include information on who is at risk from a disease and the usefulness of alternative treatments based on scientific evidence.
“Advertisements for prescription drugs really aren’t like selling a bar of soap,” Frosch adds. “If you get the wrong bar of soap it won’t have serious health consequences.”