Many TV Drug Ads Feature Misleading Claims

Television ads for both prescription and OTC medications frequently feature potentially misleading claims, according to the findings of a new study.

Television ads for both prescription and OTC medications frequently feature potentially misleading claims, according to the findings of a new study.

Few television advertisements for prescription and OTC medications make outwardly false claims, but more than half may present viewers with misleading information, according to a study published in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

As the amount of drug advertisements increase, clear and accurate information is critical in order to ensure that patients and providers make informed medication decisions. To see how well television ads for prescription and OTC medications measured up to this standard, the researchers compared assertions made in them with clinical evidence. A random sample of drug commercials that aired during the nightly news between 2008 and 2010 on ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN, was selected using the Vanderbilt TV News Archive.

For each advertisement, the researchers identified the claim given the greatest emphasis. They then categorized this primary claim as objectively true, potentially misleading, or false, drawing on data from sources including the Oregon Drug Effectiveness Reviews Project, previous analyses of drug advertising, and FDA and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decisions on false and misleading advertising. Claims that omitted important information, exaggerated information, or presented irrelevant information were considered potentially misleading, while those that blatantly contradicted evidence or those that lacked evidence to support a claim were considered false.

Of 84 ads for prescription medications and 84 ads for OTC medications included in the study, the researchers categorized 33% as objectively true, 57% as potentially misleading, and 10% as false. Compared with ads for OTC medications, those for prescription medications were more frequently categorized as objectively true (43% vs. 23%) and less frequently categorized as false (2% vs. 17%). The researchers note that these differences may result from the fact that commercials for OTC medications are regulated by the FTC, while those for prescription medications are regulated by the FDA, agencies that apply different standards and definitions in determining whether a claim is false or misleading.

The study also found that a large portion of commercials for both prescription (55%) and OTC (61%) medications contained potentially misleading claims. The researchers described a large portion (26%) of these potentially misleading claims as “nonfacts” that did not address the capabilities of the drug but instead expressed an opinion about it, often delivered by a celebrity spokesperson, or associated it with a specific lifestyle.

Misleading claims are not illegal and may not be as harmful as false statements, but the authors argue that the high frequency of misleading claims found in their study may still negatively impact consumers. “[W]ith the prevalence of drug advertising currently in the marketplace, a high level of misleading information may be affecting the quality of decision-making about drug use,” the researchers write. “Further research can explore the potential impact of these claims on consumer beliefs.”

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