Surprise: A short list of TV-ad drug risks is easier to recall, FDA study finds

Ready to say goodbye to the laundry list of risks in pharma TV ads? Don't hold your breath, but one newly published FDA study found shorter risk statements in DTC commercials led to better recognition and recall.

That's not much of a surprise, given the limits on human memory. But the FDA systematically tested the idea by swapping in shorter "severe and actionable risks" for the usual extended litany in current TV commercials.

The study used existing DTC ads for depression, high cholesterol and insomnia, and it shortened the risk statements to include only the more serious dangers. The revamped commercials also noted that other risks weren't included. Researchers recruited 1,500 patients across the three disease populations and tested risk recognition in online surveys. Conducted last year, the research was published this month in the journal Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy.

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“We found that revising the risk statements to include those that were only serious and actionable risks helped people remember and recognize those particular risks,” said Kit Aikin, senior social science analyst and research team lead in FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP), in a May presentation of the study. She added that the revision did not affect absorption of the ad's other information nor did it change the viewers’ intentions to try, use or find out more information about the products.

So does that mean risk statements on advertising will get shorter? Maybe.

“Policy is typically the result of multiple sources of information. This study will be used with other research on the topic and considered as part of any policy that might result from it. And we encourage people to do additional research on this topic,” Aikin said during the webcast.

Some in the industry cheered, saying it's about time for a change. Joanna Friel, VP group creative director at Intouch Solutions in Chicago, said she’d personally welcome a change. It might prevent the inevitable onslaught she faces when someone finds out she works in pharma advertising, which goes something like this: “Oh, do you do those commercials that say all those horrible things that sound worse than the disease and goes on and on and on?”

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More importantly for patients, though, shorter risks could help more people seek help, Friel said.

“It has become wall-to-wall noise, and people are ignoring it. Having worked in the depression category … I know it can deter people from seeking help,” Friel said. “I think they can still get the information they need as a consumer and then they can talk to their physicians.”

DTC Perspectives’ Bob Ehrlich agreed in a recent column, writing, “My view has been that only the most serious risks with the most harmful consequences should be disclosed in an ad and some quantitative odds should be mentioned. Any more than that is not particularly useful in the ad awareness stage. I clearly would want to know if anyone has died taking the advertised drug and the odds of it happening. I do not really need to hear a litany of possible non-fatal risks at the ad stage.”

The published research by the FDA and partner RTI International is part of a research initiative at the agency's OPDP to look at major statements in pharma TV ads. Announced in 2014, the proposed research sought to resolve conflicting viewpoints; some industry-watchers believe overly long lists of risks reduce consumer comprehension and minimize important risk information, while others think  TV ads don’t include adequate risk information.