According to a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine, direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription pharmaceutical drugs consistently prioritizes promotion of the drug’s benefits over educating the consumer about the targeted condition(s).
Investigators analyzed content of primetime direct-to-consumer advertisements airing between 8:00 and 11:00 PM Eastern time Monday through Saturday and 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM Eastern time Sunday across 4 major cable television networks. A total of 61 unique product claim advertisements, or advertisements that name the drug and the condition it treats, were evaluated in terms of their factual claims made regarding the targeted conditions, appeals used, portrayal of medications, and lifestyle characteristics displayed during the advertisement.
Compared with advertisements in 2004, the average length of the direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising in 2016 was longer (51.8 seconds vs 67.4 seconds, respectively). There was also an increase in the number of advertisements displaying characters only after taking the medication (56.9%  vs 39.5% ).
Fewer advertisements in 2016 discussed the conditions’ biologic nature, risk factors or causes, or prevalence in the population compared with those airing in 2004. Additionally, there was a high level of positive appeal demonstrated in the 2016 advertisements and a decrease in negative appeal. Generally, positive appeals were represented by the character’s positive mood following taking the product. There were no advertisements that listed behavioral changes that could be made as alternatives to medication, such as exercise and diet for blood glucose control.
In 2016, 59.7% of advertisements demonstrated that the drug was the solution for patients who displayed a loss of control as a result of their condition. Additionally, many advertisements illustrated that taking the medication was associated with greater social approval, as well as an increased circle of friends, family, and recreational activities.
The analysis could not take into account the effect the direct-to-consumer advertisements had on the audience’s beliefs and behaviors.
The investigators suggest that, “balancing motivation and adherence goals with the need for evidence-based accuracy and appropriate targeting deserves more attention than ever, considering current advertising practices.”
Applequist J, Ball JG. An updated analysis of direct-to-consumer television advertisements for prescription drugs. Ann Fam Med. 2018;16(3):211-216.