An Updated Analysis of Direct-to-Consumer Television Advertisements for Prescription Drugs

Ann Fam Med. 2018 May;16(3):211-216. doi: 10.1370/afm.2220.


Purpose: In 2015, the American Medical Association called for a ban of direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) for prescription drugs. Yet, the pharmaceutical industry spends more than ever on broadcast advertisements, with national health care costs largely driven by drug spending. An evaluation of these ads is critical, as these advertisements can impact the frequency which patients ask their doctors about medications.

Methods: A content analysis of prime-time direct-to-consumer ads was conducted across 4 major cable television networks. The ad content (n = 61) was coded for factual claims made regarding target conditions, appeals used, portrayal of medications, and lifestyle characteristics shown.

Results: We found a substantial decrease in the percentage of ads that conveyed information about the conditions being targeted, such as risk factors (16%) and prevalence (16%). Positive emotional appeals (94%) continued to be emphasized; yet there was decreased use of negative emotional appeals (51%), pointing to an overall more positive portrayal of a patient's experience with a medication. The lifestyles portrayed in the sample largely featured how products can enable more recreational activities (69%) and fewer ads (7%) presented alternatives to product use.

Conclusions: Direct-to-consumer advertising continued to promote prescription drugs above educating the population. Improvement in the educational value of DTCA is likely to require regulatory action rather than reliance on self-regulation by the pharmaceutical industry.

Keywords: DTC; DTCA; content analysis; direct-to-consumer advertising; pharmaceutical industry; prescription drug advertising.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Advertising / methods*
  • Drug Industry / economics*
  • Humans
  • Prescription Drugs / economics*
  • Risk Factors
  • Television*
  • United States


  • Prescription Drugs