TV Drug Ads – Snake Oil or Good Medicine?

No one I know likes television ads for prescription drugs. They’re annoying at best and depressing at worst; long lists of possible side effects seem worse than the miserable conditions they are prescribed for. One thing is certain: the ads are growing in number and some say in influence, as well. In 1993, 39% of us said that we had seen at least one prescription drug ad. By 2000, 91% of us said this. It’s no coincidence that in 1994, a mere $36 million was spent on TV ads, but by 2000, spending for TV advertising reached nearly $1.6 billion.

The debate about advertising prescription drugs on TV rages on, emotionally and economically charged. Supporters of the ads say they educate the public and improve the quality of care by encouraging people with certain medical problems to seek help. Detractors say the ads cause patients to pressure doctors for specific drugs, mostly brand-name expensive ones, and doctors give in even when the medication is unnecessary or unnecessarily risky.

According to CBS news, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health say there is no evidence available to prove that patients are getting inappropriate drugs as a result of the advertising. Yet Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the Public Citizen Health Research Group said, “There is evidence that many drug advertisements are not balanced or accurate.” The Food and Drug Administration, incidentally, doesn’t police the ads; it doesn’t have the staff.

Despite the controversy, those of us who watch the ads know we’re targeted for a reason: TV ads work. If they didn’t, pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t continue to increase their budgets for them. Prescription drug ads probably do what all TV ads do – convince us to buy things we don’t need. Drug companies say that these ads don’t replace the physician-patient relationship and that their purpose instead is to encourage communication between patient and physician. Do pharmaceutical companies, through their commercials, promote medical conditions? Or do they educate consumers about conditions and send them to their doctors, thus performing a much needed service? There is no general consensus and yet every developed country in the world, save the United States and New Zealand, prohibits direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.

Like live theatre, an audience comes to the world of the TV program and suspends belief in its artificiality. We step into that world for a while and, through identification with the characters, become part of it. Drug commercials do not portray the painful, life -shattering realities of serious illness. Instead, they offer us the answer to all our woes in the form of a pill. Take the pill and life will resemble the world of the TV ad in which happy couples populate beautiful landscapes while watching the sun set on their problems.

Since drug companies receive taxpayer subsidies, their marketing efforts would ring more true if we could believe they really have our best interests in mind. But since alternatives to drug therapy, such as lifestyle changes or preventative care, are left out of the picture, drug companies seem to be serving their own best interests by advertising on television. As for any product served up for our consumption in nothing more than a pretty package, let the buyer beware.



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