The prescription drug ads that regularly air on television and appear in magazines pitch medicines directly to consumers, a strategy that the drug industry says educates Americans about various medications.
But after studying 320 of the ads, published from 1989 through 1998 in 18 magazines from BusinessWeek to Vogue, a scientific team reports that in addition to failing to educate, most don't explain the basics and some cleverly obscure facts about the products they promote.
The team found that 95% of ads named the condition for which the drugs were prescribed, but only 12% talked about how many people had the condition and 27% mentioned the causes or risk factors for the condition.
"The ads leave you largely uninformed about the medical condition that drug is intended to treat," says Robert Bell, professor of communications at UC Davis and lead author of the study, which appears in the Journal of Family Practice.
Among the facts missing are success rates (listed by only 9% of ads), how long the drug must be taken (mentioned by 11%) and how long it takes for the drug to work (mentioned by just 20% of ads).
"If the purpose of these ads was just for education, they would be saying a lot of other things," says Richard L. Kravitz, director of the UC Davis Center for Health Services Research in Primary Care and a co-author of the study. "The purpose is to encourage patients to use these drugs, which isn't always bad."
But it can be confusing, especially when ads mention how well the drugs work against placebos (sugar pills) but not against other comparable medications. Or when they focus on short-term effectiveness when there is little or no long-term advantage to use.
"Sometimes when they say that there's a 72% reduction in symptoms, they don't say that it goes from 3% of patients to 2% of patients," study co-author Michael S. Wilkes, professor of medicine at UCLA. The study found that the best ads, as measured by an 11-point scale, were for urologic medications (6 points), skin disorders (4 points) and psychiatric/neurologic problems (4 points). Among the worst-rated were those for cardiovascular drugs (2 points) and cancer medications (1 point).