Hawking Drugs

by Patrick Appel

Greg Beato wonders why prescription drug commercials have proven so effective:

While commercials like [Brooke] Shields’ pitch for [prescription drug] Latisse have graced television airwaves since 1997, when a change in Food and Drug Administration policy first made it feasible for pharmaceutical companies to hawk their products in explicit fashion, instead of just mentioning a product’s name and encouraging consumers to ask their doctor about it, such ads remain controversial. (The U.S. is the only nation in the world that allows this kind of advertising.)

In order to comply with federal regulations, prescription drug advertisers must “present a true statement of information in brief summary relating to [the] side effects, contraindications, and effectiveness” of their products. In other words, they can’t just talk benefits. They’re also compelled to reveal dangerous complications that might arise, common side effects, precautions that should be taken with usage, etc. Advertisers are expected to convey this information in a prominent, understandable manner, and they also have to include some means by which consumers can obtain more comprehensive information about the drug and its effects – i.e., a toll-free number, a Web page, or a print advertisement (which is why virtually every erectile dysfunction drug advises viewers to see its ad in Golf magazine).

But while the regulation governing prescription drug advertising runs to approximately 5,000 words and is quite explicit it in prohibition of commercials that are “false, lacking in balance, or otherwise misleading,” the text is ultimately vague enough to leave advertising agencies plenty of literary and cinematic license: Over the last 12 years, advertisers have honed the art of presenting information in a prominent, understandable manner that is simultaneously easy to ignore.