Drug ads on TV might not be as honest as you'd hope


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You might want to maintain a healthy level of skepticism the next time you watch a drug ad on TV — a new study found that six out of 10 commercials for pharmaceuticals on the nightly news were misleading.

Researchers Adrienne Faerber of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice and David Kreling of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy analyzed 168 TV ads for both prescription and over-the-counter drugs that aired between 2008 and 2010 on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. The commercials were taken from the 6:30 p.m. EST period because the nightly news is considered a desirable time slot for drug advertisers.

Faerber and Kreling identified statements that were strongly emphasized in the ad, and then had a team of trained analysts determine whether they were truthful, potentially misleading or false — "false" meaning factually false or unsubstantiated. 

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that while false claims were rare (only one-in-10), six-in-10 omitted important information, exaggerated information, provided opinions or made meaningless associations with lifestyles. 

"Healthcare consumers need unrestricted access to high-quality information about health," said Faerber of The Dartmouth Institute, "but … these results conflict with arguments that drug ads are helping inform consumers."

The problem may be worse with non-prescription OTCs. Eight-in-10 claims in OTC ads were misleading or false, compared with six-in-10 claims in prescription ads. 

It's important to note that prescription drug ads and OTC drug ads are monitored by two different agencies: The Food and Drug Administration oversees prescription ads, while the Federal Trade Commission oversees OTC ads. The FTC's advertising regulations tend to be broader and less strict, which may or may not account for the greater amount of misleading ads. 

The study does have its limitations, however, as most do: These TV ads were taken from a 30-minute period of TV broadcast day on only four major networks, so there's no telling how representative this sample is of all TV drug ads. Additionally, subjectivity was unavoidable since the researchers were choosing the claims that they believed to be most emphasized in the ads, and the analysts were interpreting the meaning and clarity of the claims.