TV ads for drugs high on the emotions but low on facts

According to a new study television commercials for prescription drugs are heavily loaded on the emotional side but offer scant information on the disease itself and do little to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

The study's lead author, Dominick Frosch, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, says TV ads on the whole use emotion instead of information to promote drugs.

In 2005 alone drug companies spent an estimated $1.9 billion on TV advertising, of which a typical TV viewer in the U.S. will watch as much as 16 hours of this direct-to-consumer advertising each year.

In an attempt to establish what strategies were used to sell the drugs, Frosch and his team reviewed a sample of 38 ads for prescription drugs that appeared on network television in June and July 2004.

They found that though 82 percent of the ads made "factual claims," far less provided information about causes and risk factors for illnesses.

However the pharmaceutical industry disagrees condemning the study as flawed because they say it relies on information gathered before new guidelines to improve the commercials took effect.

TV ads for drugs are regulated by the FDA, but following the relaxation of regulations in 1997 there has been an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of TV advertising.

Frosch says the educational value of the ads is modest and relies in the main on an emotional appeal by suggesting people appear happier after taking the drugs.

Frosch and his colleagues recorded pharmaceutical company ads,among them 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 looked at the factual information and how the ads might appeal to viewers, such as rational, emotional, humorous, fantasy appeal, sex appeal, or nostalgia, along with 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 represented.

The team found suggestions about lifestyle changes were most often an afterthought and an adjunct to taking the drug but no commercial mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to medication.

Frosch also says other medication options, such as cheaper, generic versions of the drug advertised, and lifestyle changes that could help the condition were not mentioned.

According to the study the United States and New Zealand are the only two developed countries which allow drug companies as much unfettered access to the TV airwaves.

Frosch has called on lawmakers to force drug companies to provide more information about the medications they advertise and suggests customers should use skepticism when considering drug manufacturers claims.

Only last year the American Medical Association called for a temporary ban on advertising for newly approved drugs and appealed for more federal oversight but the response from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America was that its voluntary guidelines are "sufficient to deal with the content of direct-to-consumer ads."

The Health Research Group at the watchdog group Public Citizen, says the FDA needs to do more to crack down on prescription drug ads, including levying big fines.

The study is published in the January-February issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.

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