Background: The case for direct-to-consumer (DTC) prescription drug advertising has often been based on the argument that such promotions can educate the public about medical conditions and associated treatments. Our content analysis of DTC advertising assessed the extent to which such educational efforts have been attempted.
Methods: We collected advertisements appearing in 18 popular magazines from 1989 through 1998. Two coders independently evaluated 320 advertisements encompassing 101 drug brands to determine if information appeared about specific aspects of the medical conditions for which the drug was promoted and about the treatment (mean kappa reliability=0.91). We employed basic descriptive statistics using the advertisement as the unit of analysis and cross-tabulations using the brand as the unit of analysis.
Results: Virtually all the advertisements gave the name of the condition treated by the promoted drug, and a majority provided information about the symptoms of that condition. However, few reported details about the condition's precursors or its prevalence; attempts to clarify misconceptions about the condition were also rare. The advertisements seldom provided information about the drug's mechanism of action, its success rate, treatment duration, alternative treatments, and behavioral changes that could enhance the health of affected patients.
Conclusions: Informative advertisements were identified, but most of the promotions provided only a minimal amount of information. Strategies for improving the educational value of DTC advertisements are considered.