Background: Although critics have expressed concerns about cancer center advertising, analyses of the content of these advertisements are lacking.
Objective: To characterize the informational and emotional content of direct-to-consumer cancer center advertisements.
Design: Content analysis.
Setting: Top U.S. consumer magazines (n = 269) and television networks (n = 44) in 2012.
Measurements: Types of clinical services promoted; information provided about clinical services, including risks, benefits, costs, and insurance availability; use of emotional advertising appeals; and use of patient testimonials were assessed. Two investigators independently coded advertisements using ATLAS.ti, and κ values ranged from 0.77 to 1.00.
Results: A total of 102 cancer centers placed 409 unique clinical advertisements in top media markets in 2012. Advertisements promoted treatments (88%) more often than screening (18%) or supportive services (13%). Benefits of advertised therapies were described more often than risks (27% vs. 2%) but were rarely quantified (2%). Few advertisements mentioned coverage or costs (5%), and none mentioned specific insurance plans. Emotional appeals were frequent (85%), evoking hope for survival (61%), describing cancer treatment as a fight or battle (41%), and inducing fear (30%). Nearly one half of advertisements included patient testimonials, which were usually focused on survival, rarely included disclaimers (15%), and never described the results that a typical patient may expect.
Limitation: Internet advertisements were not included.
Conclusion: Clinical advertisements by cancer centers frequently promote cancer therapy with emotional appeals that evoke hope and fear while rarely providing information about risks, benefits, costs, or insurance availability. Further work is needed to understand how these advertisements influence patient understanding and expectations of benefit from cancer treatments.
Primary funding source: National Institutes of Health.