Drug Ads & Food Labels: Don’t Be Suckered

Last Updated on June 2, 2019 by

drug adsThe American Medical Association recently targeted drug ads as a health hazard. Food labels push the same emotional buttons to mislead the consumer. This blog helps filter out the spam and learn the facts about what we put into our bodies.

If you just want the practical stuff, skip to the last section of this blog (“Avoid Being Suckered…“).

We’ll start by discussing prescription drug ads, then move along to food. Drug ads are the more serious problem because the drugs themselves, if improperly used, can literally kill us. In addition, there’s a lot of money in the pharmaceutical business, so its marketing is more pervasive and more resistant to government regulation.

History of Drug Ads in the U.S.

The U.S. has a colorful history of drug advertising. Print media in the 19th heavily advertised patent medicines claiming cures for every disease.

drug adsThe itinerant snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies (The Rainmaker and Little Big Man). He also appeared in 1960s TV programs like Bonanza and Gunsmoke.

The modern history of drug ads begins with the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). This law gave the Food and Drug Administration authority over drug labeling. However, drug advertising still came under the Federal Trade Commission. This divided command was resolved by moving all drug jurisdiction to the FDA with the 1962 Kefauver Harris amendment to the FDCA.

Both before and after this change, manufacturers promoted drugs and medical devices exclusively to physicians. They hired “detail men” who would deliver drug samples, branded office accessories and printed material. It was not until 1981 that the pharmaceutical industry first proposed direct to consumer (DTC) marketing of prescription drugs.

Drug Ads: The Inherent Contradiction

When you think about it, Direct To Consumer drug ads make little sense.

Prescription drugs are products that are only available from a licensed medical professional. The reason for this restriction is that it takes professional training to recognize when a person’s condition requires a particular treatment. Drugs can be dangerous unless administered at the right dosage for the diagnosed disease.

Is this the meaning of life in the U.S. today? To receive medical treatment from an advertiser rather than from a physician?

DTC drug advertisers target consumers who have little or no medical knowledge. Many of those consumers pester their doctors for a heavily advertised medication. And they get angry if the doctor tries to explain that the drug in question carries unacceptable risks, or is not appropriate for their particular case. Truly in this case, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

The Wilkes et al study of drug ads described below begins with an imagined dialogue between patient and physician that dramatizes the problem just described.

            Starry-Eyed Patients Bully Their Doctors

Drug ads are very effective at convincing the consumer to buy the product. The helpless TV watcher has stars in his eyes, thinking of a quick painless cure for a condition that he may not even have. As a result, doctors often find it easier to go along with the patient’s desire, so long as it will not harm them.

For example, from 1998 to 1999 doctors wrote 34.2% more prescriptions for the 25 highest-selling drugs advertised direct-to-consumer. There was only a 5.1% increase for all other prescription drugs. Wilkes states that these doctors are responding to the patient not as a medical professional, but rather “as a waiter in a restaurant: If it’s on the menu and you’re not allergic to it, you can have it.”

Before we condemn the doctor too much for acting like a waitron, we should note the conflicting factors that the doctor must consider. Medicine is partly an art, because it relies on the doctor’s judgment and experience as much as his or her training. Moreover, deciding to prescribe a particular drug is not a black-and-white decision. If the doctor prescribes a drug that the patient doesn’t want, the patient may not get well. This may occur because of noncompliance, or as the result of a negative placebo effect.

What’s worse, a persistent patient will simply shop around until they find a doctor who will give them the drug that has the most convincing TV commercial. Thus if the drug is not out-and-out harmful to the patient, a doctor may well decide that prescribing it is the only practical path that will help the patient toward health.

            Big Pharma Writes the Rules

This contradiction was recognized when DTC drug ads were first proposed. The drug industry was quick to defend DTC ads as fulfilling a valuable function by educating the consumer. A typical 1999 pharma position paper was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association under the appropriate heading “Controversies.”

U.S. doctors were not persuaded by Big Pharma. In a survey taken around the same time, over four-fifths of physicians believed DTC ads were not a good idea. Doctors believed that DTC ads would increase costs and promote a “misleading, biased view” of advertised drugs.

Most countries in the world have looked at this situation and come to a different decision. Almost every jurisdiction has concluded that drug companies have no business targeting consumers with their advertising. Only the U.S., New Zealand and Brazil presently allow Direct To Consumer prescription drug ads.

Drug Ads Today

drug adsAfter years of public hearings, in 1997 the FDA issued guidelines for DTC broadcast drug ads. Since that date, spending on prescription drug ads has grown rapidly. DTC drug ads totaled $3 billion in 2012 and grew to $4.5 billion in 2014.

This is a lot of money, but it’s only a portion of total drug marketing expense. Direct marketing to health care professionals dwarfs the DTC costs (eight times as much in 2012). The total expense of all kinds of drug marketing actually exceeds R&D as a cost item in nine of the largest ten pharma companies. Despite large promotional expenditures, pharma enjoys a startling 19% profit margin.

Science of Drug Ads

Because DTC drug ads rapidly became prominent (and an aggravation to family doctors), researchers have been studying their effects. When I looked at the literature, three articles especially stood out. They thoughtfully reviewed and analyzed large numbers of studies to look for findings that were widely confirmed. Here are some highlights of these articles, plus a newer article that provides still more valuable information.

            Wilkes, Bell and Kravitz (2000):

– The authors analyzed 320 drug ads for 101 brands in 18 popular magazines from 1989 through 1998. DTC ads tended to play up the positive features of a drug and downplay the negative or unknown aspects. Side effects, for instance, were almost always discussed last. Headings and subheadings usually played up benefits. However, side effects were typically buried in the narrative. Thus DTC ads were strongly biased to sell the product, not to educate the consumer.

– Researchers asked consumers about their assumptions when they see drug ads. Here are four statements that are false but which consumers widely believe: (1) 50% believe that DTC ads had to be submitted to the FDA for prior approval. (2) 43% believe that only “completely safe” drugs could be advertised to consumers. (3) 22% think that only drugs without serious side effects could be advertised. And (4) 21% believe that only “extremely effective” drugs could be marketed directly to consumers. Thus advertisers mislead many consumers into believing that the Federal government has endorsed or approved the products they see in drug ads.

            Frosch et al (2005):

– These researchers found drug ads to be even worse than magazine ads in misrepresenting the product: (1) 95% of TV drug ads relied on emotional appeals, not logic. (2) No ads mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to drug use, although 19% mentioned it as an adjunct to medication. (3) Ads often framed drug use in terms of losing (58%) or gaining control (85%) over some aspect of life. (4) 78% of ads promised social approval as a result of using the drug. And (5) 58% of ads described the product as a medical breakthrough, which tended to “distort and inflate” consumer expectations.

– The drug ads “show characters that have lost control over their social, emotional, or physical lives without the medication.”

– The ads have little educational value and oversell the benefits in drugs in a way that is incompatible with overall population health.

            Mintzes (2012):

– This 2012 study looked at 13 additional studies and determined that the findings of 2005 had continued and deepened.

– DTC drug ads have shifted prescriptions toward less appropriate drugs, more expensive drugs, and less cost-effective drugs.

– Independent studies refute drug manufacturer claims of improved patient adherence, improved treatment quality and earlier provision of needed medical care.

drug ads

            Blinded with Science” (2016):

More recently, Tal and Wansink showed that drug descriptions that include graphs or a chemical formula appear to be more convincing and trustworthy. That’s true even when the additions add no new information to the description. Moreover, people who believe more strongly in the validity of science are more likely to trust information when it has the appearance of being “scientific.” Not only do ads deceive us; in addition, our personal values help us deceive ourselves!

Food Labels: Psychological Distraction

Food marketers have been just as clever about labeling foods to promote more sales. Scientists have studied consumer response to food labels and advertising to tease out the factors that make them effective for the advertiser. Advertisers use the same tricks in drug ads, especially those appearing in print media.

A February 2016 article by Koenigstorfer and Baumgartner studied how people react to foods labeled as being good for “fitness” – that is, good health. The scientists offered participants either a trail mix labeled “trail mix” or a trail mix labeled “fitness trail mix” with a pair of running shoes on the label. People trying to lose weight actually ate more of the trail mix when it was called a “fitness” snack.

Similarly, when people had eaten the snack and were given the chance to use a stationary bike, those who had consumed the “fitness” trail mix exercised for a shorter time than those who had eaten the ordinary trail mix.

            “Fitness Food” Replaces Exercise

Thus in both cases, the fitness-branded food label allowed that snack to serve as a substitute for dieting or exercise. Consuming the food with fitness labeling gave people internal “permission” to cut corners on their diet or on their exercise activity.

Internal permission also helps explain another feature of consumer behavior. An article from July 2015 by Karmarkar and Bollinger studied supermarket shoppers who use reusable grocery bags.

The researchers used scanner data from a California location of a major grocery chain and found one expected result, and one surprise. Reusable-bag shoppers purchased more organic foods than other shoppers. That’s not surprising, since bringing their own bags signals a concern for the environment. However, these eco-friendly shoppers also bought more candy and chips, which the authors classed as “indulgent” foods. Using the reusable bag seemed to give shoppers free license to indulge by helping them “feel more deserving and less guilty about doing so.”

If drug ads seduce us into demanding prescriptions for heavily advertised drugs, food marketing helps us deceive ourselves. Merely labeling a food as healthy encourages us to eat too much of it and become couch potatoes. And the worthy act of bringing a reusable bag to the market gives us internal permission to negate our environmental friendliness by pigging out on chips and sweets!

The AMA Weighs In

drug adsIt seems that today’s barely controlled drug ads serve big pharma at the expense of both consumers and medical doctors. Where, you ask, is the American Medical Association, which claims to speak for these doctors?

Well, it takes time for a big organization to move. In November 2015, eighteen years after the FDA issued its rules for DTC drug ads over TV, the AMA issued a position paper. The title of their press release gives the bottom line: AMA Calls for Ban on Direct to Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices. The statement itself makes some additional points: that the proliferation of DTC drug ads drives demand for expensive treatments despite the clinical effectiveness of less costly alternatives. And that drug company marketing costs contribute to escalating drug prices.

Media Speaks Up

The New York Times published an opinion piece less than a month later. It advocates banning consumer drug advertising. It quotes scientific data showing that drug ads lead to more prescribing and less appropriate treatments.

I found the Times article particularly interesting for its large number of passionate comments. The comments almost unanimously endorse the recommendation of the essay. Here are a few commenters and the nuggets that they contributed:

            Comments from Readers

– Michele: “…marketing of drugs… introduces an interfering third party with a conflict of interest directly into the patient/physician therapeutic relationship.”

– Carol: “…my husband, an oncologist, often has patients who absolutely insist on drugs they have seen advertised or looked up on the internet. It often takes a time-consuming explanation as to why that drug is not in the best interest of the patient, but believe me, they can get angry if they don’t get their way!”

– Healing Resonance: “I consistently tell my clients to mute all drug commercials. We also need to realize as a society that what we see on television is not REAL life. Living is what we do when we’re not watching television.”

– Ed Blau: “As a retired physician I considered it a duty to know about the drugs I prescribed and to know if the newer drugs were any better than what I was currently prescribing. I never saw a drug detail person. If I did not know more than they did I should not be seeing patients. And if patients thought that I should prescribe a drug they saw advertised rather than the one I thought was best for them they were free to find another physician.”

– Rima Regas: “…the most harmful effect of direct drug ads has been the desensitization of the consumer to the most important part of the ad: the disclaimer. Most people shut that really fast part out, when it is about the only part they should intently listen to. The drugs’ side-effects should scare people away from asking to try them and the ads are having the opposite effect.”

            My Prediction About Advertising Warnings

With respect to this last point: the Wilkes study found that consumers are very selective about what they notice on TV. People whose doctors had diagnosed them with a disease paid much more attention to drug ads discussing treatments for that disease.

Let me step out on a limb and make a prediction, which could be tested by further research. I predict that a careful study would reveal that these selective viewers, the people who should pay the most attention to the disclaimers and warnings, are more likely to absorb the emotional appeals built into the ad and shut out the disclaimers. And I believe that their identification with the actor and their wish for a cure will cause them to gloss over and ignore the dire warnings of side effects of the drug. Moreover, their desperation for an easy fix will make them that much more insistent when they visit their physician.

Avoid Being Suckered by Drug Ads & Food Labels

The Times article commenters as well as thoughtful journalists expect that the rules concerning drug ads are not likely to become tighter during our lifetimes. After all, a defective drug had to kill more than a hundred patients before Congress was willing to pass the FDCA law. Therefore misleading marketing is likely to continue, and increase.

Given this situation, how can we extract the educational information (if it exists) from drug ads and food labels without becoming victims to the cold-hearted marketing pitch that motivates the advertising expenditure?

In one word, awareness. We must be aware of the advertisers’ tricks, and of the tricks our own minds play on us. These two steps can help:

            Drug Ads: Focus on the Side Effects

Try to block out the smiling, beautiful, improbably healthy models in televised and printed ads. Instead, focus your attention on the ominous description of side effects, the words that often include “may cause death.”

Later, after the rosy glow of the ad has faded, ask yourself, has this drug been used long enough to reveal all the undesirable side effects? And are those side effects worth the benefit of the drug? Unless both these answers are “yes” you can dismiss that drug from consideration. If the answers are “unsure,” then at least you have made yourself less sensitive to the emotional pitch. As a result, you can have a more rational discussion with your doctor about the drug.

If part of the meaning of life is to enjoy good health, then health is worth approaching sensibly, without marketing bias.

            Food Ads & Food Labels: Ignore “Health” Words and Pseudo-Science

Be aware of the signals in food ads and food labels that relax you and give you permission to misbehave in other ways. “Healthy,” “natural,” “organic,” and “fitness” labeling is a red flag! It warns you to beware taking too much of that product. And beware also of any scientific-looking features. Does the ad show graphs, chemical formulas and “improvement by” percentages? Those should also be red flags, unless you are expert at detecting marketing half-truths and exaggeration.

Have drug ads ever caused you to ask your doctor about a particular drug? Have food labels ever made you feel so virtuous that you ate more of the product?

Drawing Credits:
“Hand and Pills” by johnny_automatic on openclipart.org
– “Bonnore’s Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid” label from Wikipedia
– “Prescription Bottle and Pills” by algotruneman on openclipart.org
“Pie Graph” by jabernal on openclipart.org
– “Caduceus (Rod of Asclepius)” by global quiz on openclipart.org


Drug Ads & Food Labels: Don’t Be Suckered — 4 Comments

  1. Here is a perspective from the UK which is not necessarily that relevant to the issues raised, but which caught my attention. I have this friend Russell, who trained took a degree in pharmacy at Nottingham university, toured the world working as a pharmacist in shops and hospitals for a decade or two, became bored with that, took his doctorate and then began to lecture at Kings College London on his subject, which is obviously not quite so sophisticated a subject as pharmacology itself but nevertheless deals with its practical everyday application. Whenever I came down with some sort of virus or infection, he told me that once it was diagnosed, then rush to him since the doctors did not have time, nor sometimes the application, to keep up with research on new drugs. This seemed sensible to me and was occasionally useful advice.

    Another anecdote more irrelevant but interesting to me about the health industry, I have a doctor son, who specialises in public health and was doing a year at Harvard, the best place apparently for study of the subject which seems to me to be more involved with the gathering of statistics than any other one subject. He suddenly went down with appendicitis, which was not too difficult for him to self diagnose. Anyway, he fortunately had adequate insurance, and was rushed into to hospital where he was given the most thorough check up he had ever experienced, and tested on just about everything else it could possibly have been as well as appendicitis, which it plainly was. This must have cost a fortune. He said there was the most astonishing amount of diagnostic equipment involved, and because it was the insurance company paying, then why not. However had he been paying the bill then I dare say things might have been different. It occurred to me that this might be a crucial difference in running health the American way and the NHS free at the point of service.

    I doubt it is that simple, but he is always so busy that he rarely has time to explain the nice differences between the two systems, and their pros and cons, which I think he was writing a paper on, well not at least to me, his father. But then I have always had difficulty with statistics.

    • Nick, it seems to me that an underlying theme of your examples and of the blog too is money; economics drives many aspects of medical treatment. It’s a rare physician who can spare the time to thoughtfully deal with patients and to study up on the drugs relevant to their condition, and part of the reason is that (at least in the U.S.) doctor appointments are very tightly scheduled to extract every bit of economic value from the doctor’s time. And the cost of treatment is driven up by patients who insist on having an expensive drug that they saw advertised, and by hospitals that must invest heavily in the latest equipment so they can better compete for patients. Yesterday’s NY Times has an article about drug advertising driving up costs (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/sunday-review/ask-your-doctor-if-this-ad-is-right-for-you.html?_r=0) which provides some truly awful examples. – Art

  2. Personally, I feel the pharmaceutical industry has no business marketing directly to ordinary citizens. By design, drugs are powerful external agents which are intended to change the way the body operates. In the end, the decision of whether to use a drug for a medicinal purpose inevitably involves complex tradeoffs between the symptoms from which the patient desires relief, the probable underlying cause of those symptoms, and the “unintended consequences” that will all too often occur once a drug regimen is started.

    But I’m not that comfortable with such companies marketing to doctors either. What doctor has the spare time to constantly study the new drugs coming to market almost every day, to know what the scary list of possible consequences are for each drug and how likely they are to occur? How many doctors do you know who tell a patient “I’m going to prescribe something for you, but give me a couple of days so I can properly research what drug might work best for you?”

    Over and above my doubts about those two decision-making agents, there is the problem that drug research understandably attempts to isolate how that single drug affects the body, by statistically averaging the results over a population. That’s understandable, but that’s not how people tend to take drugs. Someone taking a drug for a serious medical condition all too often is taking other drugs too. In reality, there will be almost NO scientific studies which address how drug “A” works (or doesn’t work) when combined with drug “B” (much less drug “C”). I understand the complexity issues which make that statement true, but it doesn’t change my skepticism about whether taking ANY two drugs at the same time is acceptably safe. The pharmaceutical companies can’t be expected to tell us about drug interactions, just the probable action of a drug in isolation, but that’s not sufficient.

    And that leaves us in a dilemma … there is NO ONE who is capable of addressing the complicated issues that will affect our safety if we take any drug. To make it worse, the “fine print” about any of these drugs only gives a laundry list of possible worst-case outcomes, a numbing recitation of conditions which are obviously unlikely, but none of us are given enough details to know HOW unlikely such outcomes really might be for us (no doubt because the lawyers don’t WANT their clients to disclose such information, for fear they might be held liable for the numbers in addition to the disclosure of all possible catastrophic outcomes).

    But my complaint about this whole process of taking drugs is something other than the above … in my experience there tends to be no “exit strategy” for advising the ultimate consumer (the patient) about WHEN they might expect to STOP taking any drug. All too often, once you get on the merry-go-round of starting to take drugs, both the doctors and pharmaceutical companies seem to conspire for you to stay on that drug combination “forever”. In the case of the pharmaceutical companies, their motivation is obvious — that way they are on the gravy train of collecting money year after year, as long as the patient lives. In the case of the doctors, it seems to be motivated mainly by the “do no harm” motto — something along the lines of “if the patient seems to be able to tolerate the current symptoms, let’s not rock the boat because anything we change (even deleting a drug) may have serious consequences, so let’s let well enough alone.”

    In the end, medical care ideally involves a dialog between the patient (who knows very little) and doctors (who don’t know near as much as we hope they do, but at least they know something) about certain key questions, anytime something seems wrong with the patient’s health. Unfortunately that dialog is usually woefully incomplete. The following list is not complete either, but is a start in outlining the dialog which you would ideally hope to have with any medical professional who intends to treat you for a serious condition, and/or prescribe drugs to address symptoms:

    1) how serious do you think the symptoms I am observing are?
    2) what are the likeliest causes for the symptoms I have described?
    3) what are the likeliest outcomes for each cause if NOTHING is changed?
    4) what would you recommend, if anything, to better determine which cause is most likely?
    5) what costs or risks are involved in trying to better determine the likeliest cause?
    6) for the most likely cause, what course of treatment would you recommend to address it?
    7) what costs and risks are associated with the recommended treatment?
    8) what is the best-case prognosis of my condition if we start your recommended course of treatment?
    9) what is the most likely UNfavorable outcome if we proceed with that course of treatment?

    If, as a result of such a hypothetical dialog, you were to learn that taking the 3 drugs a doctor wants to prescribe to reduce a minor problem you went to them for will statistically reduce your problem’s occurrence by 20% but will result in a variety of side effects as well as heightened risk of kidney failure and increased risk of stroke, plus it will cost thousands of dollars a year … would you take the drugs?

    • Charles, you certainly outline a difficult dilemma. I have known of people with serious conditions who researched them extensively on the internet, then shopped for a doctor who seemed up to date on clinical results and was also willing to discuss treatment options. A lot of work but no doubt worth it for some conditions. That doesn’t solve the problem you present of a minor condition whose cure may carry serious risks along with it. In that case, the doc gives the patient a script and before filling the prescription the patient could look up the federally-mandated drug description for its side effects. Certainly, trying to have the conversation you outline is a good approach, and if the doctor is not sufficiently informed on the drug, supplement with our own internet research, refrain from the drug, or consider finding another physician. In total, it’s a dilemma that has no clear solution. Drug ads merely add confusion to the mix.