Drug Policy

Study Reveals: Ads Sell Things

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Writing in The Annals of Family Medicine, five doctors report on their experiences watching a bunch of prescription drug ads. They don't seem to have much to say on the benefits of lower search costs for drug-seeking patients, but they've come to some startling conclusions. Apparently, televised drug ads "oversell" drugs. Worse, they've got "limited educational value."

This seems to be a problem throughout the entire advertising industry. The last Cingular pitch I saw added nothing to my limited knowledge of cell-phone network technologies, though it did suggest that signing up would improve relations between me and my mother. I don't think I've ever learned anything about actuarial science from Geico's talking lizard. The last Absolut ad I saw failed to address the current or future state of my liver. And those are all products I don't need anyone's permission to buy.

More here.

NEXT: "What we really want to talk about today — it's kind of important to some people — it's haircuts of the 1970s."

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  1. Back when Atkins was all the rage and people thought nothing of eating a tray of cold-cuts for breakfast, there was a study of doctors which asked them which diets they reccomended to patients. Most docs said that they cautioned patients not to try fad diets, but to concentrate on lowering caloric intake. Then docs were asked what diets they themselves were on. Most docs responded that if they were on a diet, they were on Atkins.

    Conclusion: the five docs in this report are all writing each other scrips for Valtrex in hopes that it will improve their ability to ride a bike.

  2. While it would be irresponsible of me to presume that all physicians abhor drug adds for the selfish desire to remain in control of systemically infantilized patients, the fact remains that drug adds chip away the archetypical role (although not the regulatory role) of the physican as arbiter of health. The more people know, good or bad, the better chance we have of bringing the marketplace back to medicine for the patients.

  3. Apparently, televised drug ads “oversell” drugs. Worse, they’ve got “limited educational value.”

    When sixty second commercials adequately educate the populace about drugs and provide accurate estimates of their usefullness, we won’t need physicians.

  4. Poor docs…victims of a 60-second emotional plea from a marketer…somehow, I would have thought all that training might enable them to have a rational discussion with the patient instead of just writing the scrip…

    For the professors, please please tell us how you established causation in your study? Those of us in the ad industry haven;t figured it out…maybe you can help?

  5. I call BS on the notion that ads don’t help inform consumers. Consumers can use the intarwebs to look up drugs they see advertisements for.

    I know of two people with persistent conditions who have educated themselves that way and I have myself both for allergy medications and sleep aids I might want to use on long flights. We don’t need a doctor cabal that doles out only information they feel like we should be exposed to. Have the fortitude not to write a scrip just because a patient saw an ad, then you won’t have a problem. If you can’t explain why someone shouldn’t have access to the drug, maybe you should rethink your position on it.

  6. The biggest problem with pharmaceutical marketing is not their ads (which are no more useful than any other ads). No, the biggest problem is the amount of money they spend showering gifts on doctors.

    Before anybody thinks I’m calling for regulation of pharmaceutical sales reps, I should say that I see this as a pathology of a system where you are required to go through a gatekeeper for a prescription, where you are required to buy from a licensed pharmacist (restricting supply), and where there are strong tax incentives to buy these things with insurance that a third party provides. There are at least 3 entities (doctor, pharmacist, insurance company) between the end user and the manufacturer, and so the marketing strategy focuses on making the gatekeepers happy.

    The role of doctors as gatekeepers will not end any time soon. Maybe the next best thing is to move some drugs from “prescription only” to “behind the counter”, where you can get it after consultation with a pharmacist. I know, it isn’t laissez-faire, but it would remove one intermediary from the equation, thereby enabling easier access than we currently have.

    If you can’t get rid of gatekeepers, at least give the consumer more gatekeepers to choose from.

  7. While it would be irresponsible of me to presume that all physicians abhor drug adds for the selfish desire to remain in control of systemically infantilized patient

    So, my wife (who incidentally believes narcotics etc. should be OTC) really, really hates most drug ads. The problem is that a lot are ambiguous and vague resulting in hordes of valetudinarian oldsters pestering her for scripts. So, maybe they are resentful because they are forced to infantilise the patient.

    No, the biggest problem is the amount of money they spend showering gifts on doctors.

    I have a collection of USB thumb drives given to my wife by drug reps. I just got a 1G drive from Roche with a snappy flash presentation about some drug for anemia. I have a lot of coffee cups too. We have yet to get anything of any substantial value though.

  8. I gotta say, if doctors are incapable of deciding what medicines people need… then a large chunk of my reality is caving in.

  9. What’s really interesting and kind of sad are the disclaimers they put with them: “Menstruex helps menstrual cramps and prevents digital hyperpilosity. In rare cases, your hair will fall out and your eyeballs will explode. Not to be used with Midol because this may result in twenty-hour erections in women. Ask your doctor if Menstruex is for you!”

  10. There is something I have never understood about this whole nonsense over drug ads. Of all the companies out there who make money wouldn’t you want the drug companies to make the most?

    When Starbucks runs ads they make more money, which allows them to expand and then make more coffee and find new varieties. No one has a problem with this.

    When a drug company runs ads they make more money which allows them to expand and make more drugs and find new varieties. Somehow everyone finds this unethical. It’s not like their putting the profits under the CEOs mattress. All that profit goes to R and D. Which results in the next new wonder drug.

  11. Well said Thoreau.

  12. Drug companies aren’t perfect, but they’ve done a lot of good for me. Their ads are often ridiculously over the top, but they do get the message out that they have a product that may help you. I agree that the web is a great resource for researching medical information. I can’t see how it hurts “public health” for patients to be knowledgeable about their personal medical conditions. I research everything I have or get, and my knowledge helps me communicate my symptoms to my doctors, which seems to help them help me more efficiently than otherwise. If you treat your physician with respect, I doubt they’ll resent you trying to make their difficult job easier.

  13. The role of doctors as gatekeepers will not end any time soon. Maybe the next best thing is to move some drugs from “prescription only” to “behind the counter”, where you can get it after consultation with a pharmacist. I know, it isn’t laissez-faire, but it would remove one intermediary from the equation, thereby enabling easier access than we currently have.

    Most of the drugs that the reps pitch are patented. Opportunity for competition is therefore additionally limited by things other than the prescription-only laws.

    My guess is that even if Congress passed a law tomorrow that said that all behind-the-couter drugs could henceforth be sold over the counter, I doubt that the drug companies allow over the counter sales of many of their patented drugs. there are a couple reasons I think that. One is that the presence of a doctor and a pharmacist make the pills seem valuable, which prevents people from thinking too hard about profit margins on patented drugs.

    Another reason is that there would be a lot more lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies (frivolous and non-frivolous varieties both) against pharma co’s. Right now, when someone gets a side effect, the pharma company can argue in settlement discussions that the patient suffering the side effect was warned good and counseled personally by a smart men or women (that is, the doctior and the pharmacist). You put that same drug on the other side of the counter and the only counselling is that tv ad. Fair or not, that would not look good to a potential jury and the lawyers know that even in settlement discussions. they settle in the shadow of those facts.

    Finally, if the drugs are sold over the counter, then health insurance companies are less likely to pay for them. Does your policy pay for over the counter drugs? That may not be a big deal on a small margin, small price item like aspirin, but when it is hundreds of dollars per jar of pills, then many people will only get the pills if they can use their insurance to do so.

    Anyway, it would be cool if Bailey or one of the other reasonwriters can track down a pharma rep and ask her whether patented drugs would be sold over the counter if the law allowed it. It would be real interesting to see the reps answers and see if she saw things my way or T.’s (or was non-committal).

  14. Drug companies aren’t perfect, but they’ve done a lot of good for me.

    where they hurt me is when they charge my insurance company for drugs for somebody who is not me (lets say a fat old man with high cholestorol). then my insurance rates go up. When I was employed, that was sort of okay. When I was unemployed it was really worrying and painful wondering how I could scratch together the monthly premium and keep the old COBRA going.

    I don’t blame advertising for this, but I do blame the fact that the drugs probably sell for a lot more than they would in a more transparent market. It really makes you wonder whether patent law does more harm or good.

  15. What’s really interesting and kind of sad are the disclaimers they put with them: “Menstruex helps menstrual cramps and prevents digital hyperpilosity. In rare cases, your hair will fall out and your eyeballs will explode. Not to be used with Midol because this may result in twenty-hour erections in women. Ask your doctor if Menstruex is for you!”

    The one I just love says, “Tell your doctor if you’ve had a kidney transplant.”

    Ya think?

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