How many drug commercials have you seen on TV over the last day or so? I don’t know about you, but I seem to see at least one every time I change the channel and multiple ads over the course of a one-hour program.
Ads for prescription drugs are everywhere. A recent televised sporting event, for example, featured one ad for a drug to help you fall asleep, followed by another to keep you awake.
There are few more brazen examples of healthcare practices that put industry profits ahead of patient interests than hawking prescription drugs in cheerful, 60-second TV commercials. Of the 195 countries in the world, only two allow direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals with product claims: the United States and New Zealand.
According to Kantar Media, a firm that tracks multimedia advertising, 771,368 drug ads were shown in 2016, an increase of almost 65 percent over 2012. With an average of 80 pharmaceutical ads per hour on TV today, this is the most frequent form of health communication that the average American sees.
Just considering television, 187 commercials for about 70 prescription medications have collectively aired almost half a million times since the start of 2018. To do that, drug companies shelled out $2.8 billion, according to marketing analytics provider iSpot.tv.
From 2012 to 2015, yearly spending on prescription drug advertising in all media outlets (except digital) rose from $3.2 billion to $5.2 billion, and that figure is expected to only go up.
Substantial medical literature dating back to the early ’90s highlights the practice known as ‘disease mongering.’ Pharmaceutical companies regularly pathologize everyday experiences, convince doctors that they are serious problems, tell a hypochondriacal public it needs help and offer the cure: a new drug. Drug companies have even been known to have focus groups to look for new maladies to create a need for a new drug. Remember “dry eye syndrome”?
Drug presentations often begin with a personal story about someone suffering from a specific disease and how a particular drug helped them. All well and good, until we learn that the players are usually fake patients called “actor portrayals” and fake doctors, often referred to as doctor dramatizations.” After learning what a drug might be good for, the ads consist of rapid staccato-like talk about possible side-effects and lists in a tiny text that are virtually impossible to read.
Additionally, in an essay called “The Truth Behind Drug Commercials,” Brian Engle writes about a commercial for a stool softener to help treat opiate-induced constipation (OIC). He writes, “The discussion surrounding the commercial brought light to the ridiculousness of the entire concept. The pharmaceutical company was marketing a medication to treat a condition caused by overmedication. When you think about it, it’s the perfect cycle for the pharmaceutical companies whereby an increase in sales of one medication directly increases the demand of the other with the only losers being us, the consumers.”
Watch many drug ads and listen to the symptoms, and you may find yourself imagining you have those symptoms. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 28 percent of the people who viewed a drug ad on TV went on to ask a physician about the medicine and 12 percent left with a prescription.
In 2015, the American Medical Association (AMA) called for banning ads for prescription medication directly to consumers and claims that they do more harm than good. Unfortunately, there is little incentive for the pharmaceutical companies to do that.
So, what do we as potential consumers need to remember? The most important issue we need to realize with drug ads is that they are just that — advertisements. Their primary goal is not to help us, but to sell the product.