Too Much Information? Consumers Are Getting A Big Dose Of Drug Ads

Knowledge is power — and sometimes that power can be dangerous to your health.
Of particular concern is a growing trend in health care, marketing medical drugs directly to the consumer via television, radio, and newspaper advertising.
These days, consumers are virtually bombarded with drug ads. And, if you’ve got aches, pains, and ailments, those offers of drug-induced relief can sound very good.

Generally, the ads adhere to governmental rules. A Penn State University (PSU) analysis of 84 pharmaceutical ads in 24 popular magazines shows that the ads adhered strictly to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines. For example, FDA requires drug companies to spell out appropriate usage and possible side effects.

Getting a Response

At the same time, the drug companies, said Dr. Mary Beth Pinto, assistant professor of Marketing at Penn State University (PSU), “used a variety of emotional cues to capture the reader’s attention.” The largest percentage of emotional appeals, she added, used fear as a motivator for buying the drug. Here’s a breakdown of marketing appeals used in the pharmaceutical ads:
• 43{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the ads appealed to the consumer’s fear of life-threatening illnesses;
• 31{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} were classified as attempts to evoke humor;
• 30{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} emphasized relationships, frequently involving children;
• nearly 9{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} used guilt to influence the consumer; and
• nearly 9{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} used sexual references.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising will likely continue to increase at a rapid pace and, in fact, is projected to be the fastest-growing major advertising category, surpassing even technology, fast food, and soft drink marketers, according to Pinto.

Just how big is the effort now, and how dramatic has the rate of growth been in drug marketing in the United States in recent years? Well, direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising of prescription drugs totaled $40 million in 1989 and $350 million in 1995 — and today it tops $1.5 billion.

The bottom line here is the constitutional issue of free speech and the public’s right to act on information that will benefit their well-being. However, while this knowledge is power, that power can be potentially dangerous.

It may be dangerous because too little knowledge can be a negative thing. Simply put, consumers don’t know enough about medicine to self-diagnose. But if they want a prescription drug badly enough, despite their doctor’s advice to the contrary, some consumers will get their hands on what they personally believe they need.

Any gerontologist, myself included, has heard horror stories of senior citizens sitting around the retirement community swimming pool discussing the latest medication. “Oh, you haven’t tried it?” says one retiree to another. “Well, I’ll give you a couple of my pills to try.” It’s like, “Oh, your lawnmower doesn’t work? Then you can borrow mine.” And so it goes.

Patient Safety First

Direct-to-consumer marketing may be an issue of self-regulation that the drug companies might want to think about now, before that 800-pound gorilla, the U.S. government, steps in and does it for them. And, yes, it’s possible to give consumers free access to information about health products and at the same time protect them from over-zealous or unauthorized use of health products.

Over-medication is a major health problem that sends 250,000 people to the hospital each year at an estimated cost of $2 billion. One thing is certain: the direct-to-consumer issue will be an interesting one to watch.

I’d say, as a social issue, it ranks right near the top. The DTC issue is getting to be big news, but, as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Dr. David Demko writes about Baby Boomer lifestyle issues and trends for AgeVenture News Service; www.demko.com.