A study published in the current issue of the Annals of Family Medicine suggests that certain types of pharmaceutical advertising may be harmful to our health. According to the report, “American television viewers see as many as 16 hours of prescription drug advertisements each year.” All that tv time doesn’t come cheap, and it reflects a growing trend. Pharmaceutical expenditures on such commercials escalated from $654 million in 2001 to $1.19 billion in 2005.
The researchers, led by UCLA psychologist Dominick Frosch, “coded ads shown during evening news and prime time hours for factual claims they make about the target condition, how they attempt to appeal to consumers, and how they portray the medication and lifestyle behaviors in the lives of ad characters.” And here is what they found:
“Most ads (82%) made some factual claims and made rational arguments (86%) for product use, but few described condition causes (26%), risk factors (26%), or prevalence (25%). Emotional appeals were almost universal (95%). No ads mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to products, though some (19%) portrayed it as an adjunct to medication. Some ads (18%) portrayed lifestyle changes as insufficient for controlling a condition. The ads often framed medication use in terms of losing (58%) and regaining control (85%) over some aspect of life and as engendering social approval (78%). Products were frequently (58%) portrayed as a medical breakthrough.”
According to the researchers, the ads do not seem intended for educational purposes given that they provide only “limited information about the causes of a disease or who may be at risk.” Instead, the advertise tend to focus on “characters that have lost control over their social, emotional, or physical lives without the medication.” So what is their purpose? The ads seem primarily designed to tap into what Susan Fiske calls our “core social motives,” including belonging, self-enhancement, and controlling.
Put differently, the pharmaceutical industry is betting billions on the idea that those of us who watch the nightly news — a shrinking group, to be sure — are situational characters and not the reasoning choosers we prefer to see ourselves as. And they succeed in part by selling us on the hope of improving ourselves and gaining control of our lives through choice — a choice to buy their product.
To listen to an NPR story about the report, click here.