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Responsible Marketing

Drug company advertising: Responsible or not?

By June 2, 2008July 23rd, 20202 Comments


Every time I hear an ad for a medication on television, I think of the adage, If the disease doesn’t kill you, the cure will.

After all, “the side effects might include. . .” list is usually so long and filled with so many undesirable things it would make anyone cringe.

I don’t like hearing the list, but I’m glad drug companies are required to provide this information in their advertising.

But according to research by Ruth Day, a researcher at Duke’s Medical Cognition Laboratory, drug industry advertising is developed so the side effects have extremely low “cognitive accessibility,” which is a fancy way of saying, they make it really hard to remember the bad stuff.

In Do Consumers Understand Drug Ads, Time Magazine explains her work and findings:

Day (whose research is not funded by either the industry or the FDA) analyzes ads for their linguistic complexity, speed of voiceovers, visual distractions and the timing of when information is given about drug benefits and side effects — all to help determine how easy it is to understand and remember the information presented.

It’s commonly understood by psychologists — and ad makers — that if a person is presented with a list of things, he or she is more likely to remember items at the beginning and at the end of the list than items just past the middle. For example, if you are asked to hear, then recall, a list of 10 foods, chances are best that you’ll forget the sixth, seventh and eighth foods.

So, while drug makers abide by the law and present important side effect information, it’s no surprise that they nearly all follow the same format: putting benefit information in the first half of the commercial, side effect information just past the middle, then benefit information again at the end.

Here’s a video that provides additional background:

So, in short, drug companies are complying with requirements for them to provide information regarding side effects, but are doing it in a way that makes it difficult to process or remember.

Are the drug companies following the rules and simply marketing smart, or are they manipulating consumers?

Comment below to weigh in.

. . .
Special thanks to Conrad Saam at Avvo for the inspiration for this post. Thanks Conrad!”

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Will Boyd says:

    I think that the marketing of prescription drugs to patients in most any form is irresponsible. Empowering individuals to take charge of their own health care is great if that means education and encouragement of good nutrition and prevention, but creating a culture of armchair pharmacists is not. What effects would we see if pharmaceutical companies eliminated their budgets for broadcast advertising, relied solely on marketing their products to doctors, and invested their money in developing new drugs with fewer side effects and finding cures for things like, I don’t know, cancer? To me, this would be a much mores socially responsible approach. My message to the drug companies would be, “Create drugs of real value and we will take them. I will trust my doctor to prescribe them, not my television.”

  • Shari says:

    The drug companies are clever masters of manipulation. They prey on our desire to take a magic pill to fix all of our ills. By law, they have to list side effects, but it comes as no surprise that they’d study how to make that list forgettable.

    Consider also, who’s paying for our morning and nightly news. When our health information is sponsored by companies who profit by creating dependence on their products, the integrity of that information is compromised. Just count the number of pharmaceutical ads during any news program.

    Stepping off my soapbox now. Thanks for a great post. By the way, at least in Firefox, your video is missing.

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