Make sure your skepticism antenna is fully extended when you’re watching TV commercials for both prescription and non-prescription drugs.
“The frequency of potentially misleading claims in drug advertising is in conflict with proponents who argue the social value of drug advertising is found in informing consumers about drugs,” conclude the study’s authors. “These results, combined with the results from previous studies, indicate a wider pattern of persuasion and deception in drug advertising to consumers.”
Randomly chosen commercials
For the study, Adrienne Faerber, a research fellow at Dartmouth College’s Center for Medicine and the Media, and David Kreling, a professor of social and administrative sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, compared claims in 168 consumer-targeted TV drug commercials aired from 2008 through 2010 during nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. The commercials were randomly selected and included products in 21 different categories.
Exactly half (84) of the commercials were for prescription drugs — ones used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions, including allergies, dementia, high cholesterol, heartburn and erectile dysfunction. The other 84 advertisements were for over-the-counter (non-prescription) medications, including some of the best-known pain relievers, heartburn preparations, and cough and cold formulations.
Faerber and Kreling selected the most-identified claim in each commercial. They then had three specially trained pharmacy students examine the evidence behind each claim and code it as either objectively true, potentially misleading or false.
The “potentially misleading” category involved claims that used selected facts, minimal facts or nonfacts to present “omissions, exaggerations, opinions and meaningless associations,” explain the researchers. Here are some examples from the study:
A selected fact: “Pevacid 24 [hour] is the same medicine, but with a new location on the store shelf.”
This claim, Faerber and Kreling point out, “omits that Prevacid 30 mg [an over-the-counter product used for heartburn] was still available prescription-strength, so patients prescribed the higher dose would not get the same medicine.”
A minimal fact: “Bayer Quick Release Crystals are ready to work faster than caplets or tablets.”
“The formulation may dissolve quicker,” the two researchers note, “but it is not taken up the body any faster, nor will it relieve pain faster than other formulations.” [This over-the-counter pain medication appears to have been removed from the market.]
A nonfact: “Levitra works for me. Maybe it can work for you.”
This statement, write Faerber and Kreling, “provides the opinion of the actor in the advertisement about the functioning of Levitra [used for erectile dysfunction].”
Then there were the false claims — ones that the researchers define as “objectively false by directly contradicting evidence, or lacking any evidence to support it.” Here’s an example:
“The difference between Advil PM and Tylenol PM is a better night’s sleep.”
“The specificity of this claim,” explain Faerber and Kreling, “implied that specific head-to-head comparative evidence was available. No studies had been published comparing Advil PM (ibuprofen with diphenhydramine) versus Tylenol PM (acetaminophen with diphenhydramine), only studies comparing ibuprofen with acetaminophen.”
A surprising result
After analyzing the coded data, Faerber and Kreling found that only 33 percent of the major claims in both the prescription and nonprescription drug commercials were truthful. That meant 66 percent of the claims were either false or potentially misleading.
The percentage of false claims was relatively low — only about 10 percent. But, as the researchers also point out, “Since false claims are illegal, this study should have found no false claims.”
The study did find that the TV ads for prescription drugs contained more objectively true claims and fewer false claims than those for over-the-counter ones, but the potentially misleading claims were equally prevalent in both groups of ads.
And it was the frequency of those misleading claims (57 percent of all the major claims made in the analyzed ads) that Faerber and Kreling found to be “the most surprising result” of their study.
But then, as they point out, neither the Food and Drug Administration, which overseas prescription-drug advertising, nor the Federal Trade Commission, which does the same for nonprescription drugs, “explicitly support or forbid the use of these potentially misleading claims.”
As I said, consumers would be wise to remain highly skeptical while watching — or reading — any form of drug advertising.
You’ll find an abstract of this study at the Journal of General Internal Medicine website, but, unfortunately, the full study is behind a paywall.
(Hat tip: Health News Review)