TV Drug Ads May Be Misleading, Don't Always Tell The Truth
September 17, 2013

TV Drug Ads May Be Misleading, Don’t Always Tell The Truth

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Six out of ten pharmaceutical commercials seen on nightly TV news are potentially misleading, according to new research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

The study found that these potentially deceptive claims are prevalent throughout consumer-targeted prescription and non-prescription drug ads seen on television.

"Healthcare consumers need unrestricted access to high-quality information about health, but these TV drug ads had misleading statements that omitted or exaggerated information,” said Adrienne Faerber of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice, one of the lead researchers of the study.

“These results conflict with arguments that drug ads are helping inform consumers,” Faerber added.

Pharmaceutical drugmakers spent $4.8 billion promoting their products in 2009, far surpassing the $3 billion spent promoting nonprescription products that year, the researchers said.

In recent years, researchers and policymakers have debated whether drug advertising informs consumers about new drugs, or merely persuades them to take medicines they may not need.

Content for the current study came from the Vanderbilt TV News Archive, an indexed archive of recordings of nightly news broadcasts (including commercial segments) on ABC, CBS, and NBC since 1968, and on CNN since 1992.

Faerber and David Kreling, of The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy, viewed advertisements in the 6:30pm EST period because the nightly news is a desirable time slot for drug advertisers due to the older age of nightly news viewers.

The researchers reviewed 168 TV advertisements for prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs aired between 2008 and 2010, and identified statements that were strongly emphasized in the ads. A team of trained analysts then classified those claims as being truthful, potentially misleading or false.

The results revealed that false claims, which are either factually false or unsubstantiated, were rare, at just ten percent. This is unsurprising considering that false advertising is illegal and can lead to criminal and civil penalties. However, a majority of the claims – six in 10 – were potentially misleading, and omitted important information, exaggerated information, provided opinions or made meaningless associations with lifestyles, the researchers said.

False or potentially misleading claims may be more frequent in OTC drug ads compared with ads for prescription drugs, according to the research. The analysis found that 60 percent of prescription drug ads contained misleading or false statements, compared with 80 percent of OTC drug ads.

The Food and Drug Administration is the federal agency that oversees prescription drug advertising, while the Federal Trade Commission oversees advertising for nonprescription drugs.

Each agency has different definitions of false and misleading claims. For instance, the FDA interpretation is that prescription drug advertisements must include information about the harmful effects of the drug, but this information is left out of most OTC drug ads.

The researchers acknowledge that there were some limitations in the study method. For example, the sample was drawn from a 30-minute period of the TV broadcast day on four major networks, and did not represent all ads on TV. Additionally, they only analyzed what they determined as the most-emphasized claim in each advertisement, and since the coders interpreted the meaning of claims to facilitate analysis, this did introduce subjectivity.

"Healthcare consumers need unrestricted access to high-quality information about health,” Faerber said. "Consumers may see up to 30 hours of television drug advertising each year, while only spending 15 to 20 minutes, on average, at each visit with their primary care physician."