Why People Are Seeing More Ads for Drugs on TV

Christopher M. Placitella, Esq.

Jun 15, 2023

Have you noticed recently that you are seeing more commercials for prescription medications while watching television or streaming services? According to a recent article in The New York Times, it is not your imagination.

To be sure, the overall number of television advertisements increased by about 65 percent between 2012 and 2016 — and even Netflix introduced a popular ad-supported streaming plan in Fall 2022. But why are you seeing more ads specifically for drugs? In short, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) legalized pharmaceutical advertising on television in the mid-1980s, and drug companies view the ads as an increasingly effective way to target viewers — especially older Americans — who need more extensive medical care and treatment for potentially life-threatening conditions.

Yet prescription drug advertising on TV is not without its risks. So what are the requirements for pharmaceutical companies to advertise on TV programs — and what are some of the potential harms to consumers?

FDA Rules for Broadcast Product Claim Ads

The FDA has specific broadcast product claim ad requirements, which apply to any drug advertisement on TV, radio, or telephone. They include the following:

  • The company must present a fair balance of drug benefits and risks, with the most important risks provided in an audio (i.e., spoken) format.
  • There is also an “adequate provision requirement,” meaning that the company must either provide information about all of the risks contained within the prescribing information for the drug, or a “variety of sources” through which viewers can obtain that information. Examples of sources are a doctor, a toll-free telephone number, a magazine or journal with print information about the drug, and/or a website address.

Too Much Information to Be Meaningful?

The aim of drug ads is to get consumers to buy the products or request a prescription from their healthcare providers. But when so much information is compressed into a short drug commercial, it is unlikely that most consumers take it all in and adequately assess the benefits and risks of any particular drug.

In fact, in giving a laundry list of side effects associated with any given prescription drug — which can range from temporary and non-life-threatening side effects to death — consumers may actually be more likely to believe that the drug is effective in treating the condition for which it is designed. According to the Chief Executive Officer of a healthcare advertising agency, “it’s counterintuitive, but everything in our research suggests that hearing about the risks increases consumers’ belief in the advertising.”

And because consumers are more likely to place faith in the drug, they may be ignoring many of the side effects that could produce serious harm.

According to the FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion, these are the most common issues found in today’s drug commercials:

  • Omitting or downplaying of risk
  • Overstating the drug’s benefits
  • Failing to present a “fair balance” of risk and benefit information
  • Omitting material facts about the drug
  • Making claims that are not appropriately supported
  • Misrepresenting data from studies
  • Making misleading drug comparisons
  • Misbranding an investigational drug

In response to these concerns, which disproportionately impact seniors who suffer from the serious health conditions that many of these drugs are designed to treat, the FDA has adjusted its broadcast advertising rules to ensure that consumers have the balanced information they need to make effective decisions about their health and drug options.

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