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Even as a movement grows to limit drug ads aimed at consumers, very few people say advertising prompts them to ask their doctors about the medicines being promoted, according to a survey released on Monday.

To be specific, only 7 percent of those queried reported that they made a point of speaking with a doctor about a drug after seeing it advertised on television, according to the survey conducted by Treato, a market research firm. And this was down from 21 percent in a previous survey.

Moreover, 76 percent are not inclined to pay attention to an ad just because a celebrity is pitching the medicine; 46 percent want drug ads banned from the Super Bowl; and 80 percent say they are not inclined to pay more attention to animated characters hawking drugs.


The findings suggest that many consumers may not be easily swayed by the plethora of direct-to-consumer advertising seen on television, a controversial issue that has prompted moves by lawmakers and physicians to restrict this form of promotion.

Spending to promote medicines on TV totaled nearly $3.7 billion last year, up 31 percent from 2014, according to Kantar Media. Overall, the pharmaceutical industry spent about $5.4 billion last year on advertising, a 19 percent increase from $4.5 billion the year before.


Over the past few months, the American Medical Association called for a ban on consumer drug ads, while one congressional lawmaker proposed a three-year moratorium. Another lawmaker wants to end the tax breaks that are given to drug makers for their advertising.

As we have noted previously, consumer groups and physicians have argued that ever since the US Food and Drug Administration revised guidelines in 1997 to permit drug makers to use broadcast advertising, some ads too often encourage patients to seek medicines unnecessarily.

The AMA — and the lawmakers that proposed the various bills — has also argued that advertising can inflate health care costs if consumers are prompted to seek newer, higher-priced medicines that drug makers may advertise to quickly trigger sales.

Impact or no impact, the advertising is being noticed. The survey found that 64 percent of consumers said they felt like they saw more drug ads on TV last year. During the past year, drug ads on TV increased by 26 percent, according to Medical Marketing & Media.

And some forms of drug advertising rub consumers the wrong way. The survey discovered that 75 percent of the respondents believe that ads for erectile dysfunction pills and low libido drugs should only be shown after 9 pm or not at all.

Of course, this is just one survey and the sample size is not all that large, at least in relation to the overall population exposed to TV ads promoting medicines. Nonetheless, the findings do provide a glimpse into consumer thinking at a time when drug makers are pouring more money into ads.

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The FDA may also want to take note. The agency is conducting a study to determine the extent to which animated characters in TV ads distort consumer understanding of side effect risks. This is the latest in a string of studies that the agency has pursued to gauge the impact of advertising on consumers.

  • I usually turn down the sound for all commercials since most of them are for drugs. But then I also stay away from doctors, hospitals, and almost anything that is advertised as “healthy.” If I am sick as a dog, I seek medical attention. I eat lots of vegies and live on a farm. When I die, I hope I am on no to few pills as possible.

  • As a retired pharmaceutical industry professional after a long career, I remember a time when advertising of prescription drugs was illegal. But now in 2017, one finds that the average hour, on nearly every network and cable TV station, contains at least 8 to 10 such ads, if not more. These commercials are aimed at the average layperson and not the physician of course – and provide much more information than that person, with no specialized knowledge, can either properly process or needs to know. By the time the litany of side effects is delivered, one might feel that they’re better off with the disease than the cure! This is the information provided in the product package insert, or drug labeling – and that information is available to the medical professional and pharmacist, both of whom possess the knowledge and expertise to make a more proper judgement of what is and isn’t appropriate.

    It has long been clear that profit for Big Pharma is the driving force behind these incessant stream of ads – if they were not profiting handsomely, the ads would virtually disappear. And the use of celebrities to hawk their goods – be they actors, athletes and more – should not make their message or their motive any more believable. Besides all of this, each of the ads ends with a statement like “if you cannot afford your medication…..”. Shouldn’t the industry motive be clear? It’s very true that the discovery and development of new prescription drugs involves costs that are exorbitant; however, the whole scheme of advertising, promoting and over-prescribing has long since gotten out of hand. It’s time for reason, good sense and fair play to prevail once again….

  • the unspoken reality, don’t ask don’t tell, is that pharma advertising is cleverly aimed at prescribing physicians, and HCPs, not the general public. since pharma cannot access and sell directly to MDs, they really aim their ads at prescribers who are watching TV at home, or popup ads on the internet. Access to current MDs by pharma sales reps is around just 10-20%. Doesn’t it make sense the ads are aimed at prescribers, not the public which aren’t Rxers. Just saying from experience, 27 years in pharma sales.

  • Ed, this is interesting information. What may make it more meaningful is to compare these data with TV advertising in other industries. Are consumers in other industries more engaged? I am not a TV advertising expert, but my perception is that engagement is low for TV advertising in general, as opposed to, say, social, across all industries

    • Steven, as a veteran of the industry DTC ads are written at two educational levels for the same viewer- a sixth grade level to make sure you understand the efficacy and a 12th grade level to make safety information harder to understand. We have also broken our ethical promises to consumers. The makers of ED drugs had initially promised not to advertise during family hours but now you can “enjoy” ads for ED while having your breakfast Cheerios with the family. As I was told 33 years ago “son, make no mistake about it; marketing runs the show”. Just as true today as it was back then.

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