Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars on advertising, but most people would prefer not to see them at all, with many complaints focusing on four main issues, Kate Sheridan writes for STAT+.
The 4 biggest problems with drug advertisements
According to Sheridan, the first advertisement for prescription drugs ran in the early 1980s, and since then "pharmaceutical advertising has exploded." In 2022, data from Statista shows that drug companies spent $7 billion in advertising.
However, even with the proliferation of drug advertisements on TV, few people actually want to see these ads. In a 2016 poll from STAT and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 57% of respondents said they wanted drug advertisements to be removed from TV.
So far, 77 complaints about prescription drugs advertisements have been filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) since 2017, and many of these complaints focus on four main issues:
1. There are too many prescription drug ads
According to Sheridan, almost two dozen complaints submitted to the FCC focused on the number of pharmaceutical ads on the airwaves, with consumers arguing that there was "simply too many."
"There are too many pharmaceutical and medical ads on tv," wrote a San Diego resident in August 2021. "They start with things like if you have had a heart attack … before I have a chance to change the channel or silence the TV. Makes me feel like I am having a heart attack."
Markus Saba, a marketing practice professor and executive-in-residence at the University of North Carolina's Center for Business of Health, noted that the number of advertisements people see may be related to the "old marketing adage called the 'rule of seven,' which states that someone need to see an ad seven times before they buy [a product]."
With social media increasing the number of ads people see every day, Saba speculates that it may not "take something closer to 20 to 30 times to get a patient to take action" about a certain prescription drug.
According to some health economists, there may also be potential benefits to a large number of drug advertisements.
"One of the things the ads do is expand the use of drugs across the category. They're category-expanding," said Amanda Starc, a strategy professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
For example, if someone with heart disease sees a statin commercial or someone with depression sees a commercial for antidepressants, they are more likely to fill a prescription for the drug.
"To the extent that you believe the drugs on the market are valuable, then it seems like the advertising of those drugs is valuable as well," Starc said.
2. The same ads are shown over and over
Aside from the number of ads, many people are also dissatisfied with the repetition of the same ads.
"SURELY there is a limit to how many commercials and drug ads can be run…and re-run during a 24-hour period," wrote someone from Florida.
According to Saba, certain TV programs get the same ads over and over because pharmaceutical companies believe their "target patient" is likely to be in the audience of a specific show.
"Nowadays, pharma companies have access to tons of data and information regarding their target patient," Saba said. "They know exactly what they think, feel, and do … and when. They know who influences them, what trends they care about, what habits they have, what they purchase, and most importantly they know what media they consume, when and how. They know what shows they watch."
In addition, Starc noted that if someone is watching an advertisement from one pharmaceutical company, then they are not seeing ads from a competitor, which could boost sales of a particular drug over another.
3. The detailed drug side effects make people uncomfortable
According to Sheridan, the detailed descriptions of potential side effects and conditions are a "foundational part of drug commercials," and pharmaceutical companies are required by FDA to include them in their advertisements.
However, 11 FCC complaints have been filed about the way drug advertisements describe potential side effects, with many expressing their discomfort.
"The prescription drug commercials in this nation are ridiculous enough but these skin disorder commercials make my stomach turn," wrote one person from Georgia. "… I do not feel comfortable watching television as long as that commercial is airing."
"It is repulsive to hear the heinous side effects of prescription drugs," wrote another person from Virginia. "Most people are eating breakfast or dinner while the TV is on. Please censor advertisers from naming the side effects of drugs. It should be discussed in the privacy of a doctor's office. They aren't over-the-counter medicines. A person has to discuss it with a doctor in order to receive it!"
4. The ads could negatively impact children
Sixteen of the FCC complaints expressed concerns about how certain drug advertisements—such as those for erectile dysfunction, birth control, or HIV—could affect children.
"The new Phexxi [birth control] drug commercial being broadcast during daytime and prime time hours is extremely inappropriate content for children," wrote a person from Texas. "I'm not sure how, or why this was deemed appropriate, but it needs to be removed immediately!"
Similarly, a person from South Carolina wrote that they had "noticed an increase in prescription commercials for drugs to treat HIV-1" and "these commercials [are] on the air during the morning news when my children have to hear about them."
However, Saba said that if commercials "are relevant and resonating with their target market, but perhaps making a few non-customers uncomfortable, that is a tradeoff [the drug companies] are willing to take."
Starc also noted that while FCC has the power to regulate indecency on TV, the advertisements people were complaining about don't violate any rules. "None of these advertisements are particularly explicit," she said. (Sheridan, STAT+ [subscription required], 1/10)