Purpose: American television viewers see as many as 16 hours of prescription drug advertisements (ads) each year, yet no research has examined how television ads attempt to influence consumers. This information is important, because ads may not meet their educational potential, possibly prompting consumers to request prescriptions that are clinically inappropriate or more expensive than equally effective alternatives.
Methods: We coded ads shown during evening news and prime time hours for factual claims they make about the target condition, how they attempt to appeal to consumers, and how they portray the medication and lifestyle behaviors in the lives of ad characters.
Results: Most ads (82%) made some factual claims and made rational arguments (86%) for product use, but few described condition causes (26%), risk factors (26%), or prevalence (25%). Emotional appeals were almost universal (95%). No ads mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to products, though some (19%) portrayed it as an adjunct to medication. Some ads (18%) portrayed lifestyle changes as insufficient for controlling a condition. The ads often framed medication use in terms of losing (58%) and regaining control (85%) over some aspect of life and as engendering social approval (78%). Products were frequently (58%) portrayed as a medical breakthrough.
Conclusions: Despite claims that ads serve an educational purpose, they provide limited information about the causes of a disease or who may be at risk; they show characters that have lost control over their social, emotional, or physical lives without the medication; and they minimize the value of health promotion through lifestyle changes. The ads have limited educational value and may oversell the benefits of drugs in ways that might conflict with promoting population health.