Background: Pharmaceutical companies spent US$1.8 billion on direct-to-consumer advertisements for prescription drugs in 1999. Our aim was to establish what messages are being communicated to the public by these advertisements.
Methods: We investigated the content of advertisements, which appeared in ten magazines in the USA. We examined seven issues of each of these published between July, 1998, and July, 1999.
Findings: 67 advertisements appeared a total of 211 times during our study. Of these, 133 (63%) were for drugs to ameliorate symptoms, 54 (26%) to treat disease, and 23 (11%) to prevent illness. In the 67 unique advertisements, promotional techniques used included emotional appeals (45, 67%) and encouragement of consumers to consider medical causes for their experiences (26, 39%). More advertisements described the benefit of medication with vague, qualitative terms (58, 87%), than with data (9, 13%). However, half the advertisements used data to describe side-effects, typically with lists of side-effects that generally occurred infrequently. None mentioned cost.
Interpretation: Provision of complete information about the benefit of prescription drugs in advertisements would serve the interests of physicians and the public.