Pharma ads are sunnier than they used to be. But are they better?

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TV viewers see more happy and positive pharma ads than they did just over a decade ago, a new study found. (3dman_eu/CC0 Creative Commons)

Pharma TV ads are happier than ever, according to new research, but that may not be a good thing for patients. Researchers found that DTC product ads on TV are now more likely to focus only on the post-medication mood, health and social benefits of prescription drugs.

The study, run by two media and advertising professors, compared a 2004 pharma ad study with their own research reviewing pharma ads from 2016. They used the same coding to evenly compare the two sets of commercials, but found that health condition and drug education was lacking more in the 2016 ads than it had in 2004.  

“Similar to the 2004 sample, many of the 2016 ads featured facts related to the indicated health condition. Fewer of the 2016 ads, however, provided information related to the biologic nature, risk factors or causes, or prevalence of the condition compared with the 2004 sample," Ph.D. Professors Janelle Applequist and Jennifer Gerard Ball wrote in the current issue of the Annals of Family Medicine. 

"We also noted that none of the 2016 ads provided quantitative estimates of the condition prevalence (e.g., 1 in 4), but instead provided qualitative descriptions such as thousands or many,” they added.

They also found that 2016 ads were longer—averaging 67 seconds versus 52 seconds—and used less fear-mongering or focusing on the negatives of the condition. The sample DTC ads used included 61 product ads for 35 different prescription drug brands ranging from GlaxoSmithKline respiratory therapy Breo to Shire dry eye drug Xiidra.

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Pharma ads have also gotten less funny in the 12 years between ad studies. The research found a decrease in the use of humor to appeal to viewers, falling from 36% to 8.9%.

What does it all mean? The researchers said that more research is needed, but they did conclude that self-regulation by pharma companies and adherence to guidelines from the trade association PhRMA doesn’t seem to be holding DTC ads to an educational standard.

“Our results suggest that self-regulation has done little to improve the educational quality of DTCA. If these ads are to fulfill a public health function in addition to a drug marketing function, policy makers will likely need to take further regulatory action to codify those expectations,” the authors wrote.

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One of the scientists who did the original research agreed in a posted comment about the need to explore regulations.

Dominick L. Frosch, now a scientist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, wrote, “As a scientist I am proud to see our 2007 methods replicated with a recent sample of ads. As someone interested in more sensible health policy, I am troubled though, sadly, not surprised … The lack of funding for research on DTCA is one impediment. Lack of access to relevant data is another. Surely, the industry must know much more about the effects of this $6 billion/annually experiment it is funding than the public does. It is time for Congress to ask more probing questions. These new data call for it.”