Prescription Drug Ads “Walk a Communications Tightrope”
“Direct-to-consumer drug advertising walks a communications tightrope,” says Dartmouth linguistics expert Lewis Glinert. “It’s a balancing act between disclosing both the risks and the benefits of prescription medications.”
Glinert, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures, studies how people use and interpret language, and two of his studies appear in the June issue of the journal Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy. Both aim to understand how effectively and efficiently drug ads convey their messages. Glinert says that this line of research was prompted when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called for more empirical research on the effects of direct-to-consumer drug advertising in 2002.
The first study, with colleague Jon Schommer, an associate professor of pharmaceutical care and health systems at the University of Minnesota, examined two U.S.-aired drug ads from 1999, one for a drug with low associated health risks and the other with high associated health risks. They used the original ads as well as manipulated versions that placed the risk information at the end of the ads with no visual competition, only a voice over. One hundred thirty-five first-year pharmacy students participated in the study.
“Our research didn’t prove one way or the other about viewer interpretation of risk,” says Glinert.
Each study participant watched a different version of the ad and then answered a survey about its content. The survey contained questions that tested a viewer’s recall of the information in the ad, evaluated the effectiveness of the ad, and measured the perception of the risks of the drug advertised.
“We did find, however, that de-integrating or separating out the risk information for the drug with the more severe risks improved the recall of both general information and side effect details and it led to a perception that the ad had greater informational content. There was no increase in knowledge about the drug’s risk.”
The researchers were surprised that the results were not the same with the drug that had the less severe risks.
“Maybe because the risks were lower, people didn’t pay as close attention,” says Glinert. “Television advertising for prescription drugs is a growing industry, and the FDA mandates that these ads prominently disclose major risks associated with the drug. But the FDA doesn’t specify how risks should be communicated, and our study examined how people remember the risks mentioned in ads.”
This is one aspect that Glinert and Schommer hope to test further in the future. They also want to increase and diversify their participant pool, and they want to learn whether the gender of the voice-over influences how well people retain vital information.
Glinert’s second study concerned the basic use of language in five different prescription drug ads. Using principles of discourse analysis, he looked at what the ads were trying to communicate, and what the viewer was likely to derive from them. For example, he took into consideration the overall architecture of the ad, like the introduction of information, the use of voice-overs, and the presentation of facts. He also analyzed the connections between spoken messages, images, and other non-verbal signals such as music, written words and body language.
“I found an intense switching and fusing of styles,” says Glinert. “The overall function of the commercials was a blend of promotional, informational and aesthetic. It was a strange combination at times when risk messages were competing with up-beat music and visuals.”
Glinert concludes that linguistic models of research can be used to contribute to the fields of advertising and promotion, especially in direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs.
“There’s a lot more to learn in order to help advertisers effectively communicate and make their ads more understandable for the consumers.”
Both research studies were partially funded by a grant from the Pharmacia Corporation.
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