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Interpreting Prescription Drug Advertising

image In direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, pharmaceutical companies advertise their prescription drugs on TV, radio, Internet, and in magazines and newspapers. These ads are aimed directly at consumers. The companies hope to increase sales through these ads by prompting people to ask their doctors for these prescription medications.

The use of DTC advertising is controversial. There was a time when prescription drug advertising was discouraged, if not outright banned from the airwaves. And while that’s not true any more, critics argue that it encourages the use of specific brand-name prescription drugs (when a generic option may be available) and other costly treatments. Advocates say that it helps to prevent the under-use of treatments that may be helpful by educating the consumer about their treatment options.

Regulating Prescription Drug Advertising

Unlike most other advertising, which is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, advertising of prescription drugs has been regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1962. The FDA established a set of detailed requirements for the content of prescription drug ads to help ensure that consumers are not misled or deceived by the ads. These requirements are intended to insure that pharmaceutical companies accurately communicate the benefits and risks of their advertised drugs.

However, DTC ads do not require FDA approval before being aired, although companies may seek the advice of the FDA voluntarily before releasing ads. If the FDA believes that an ad violates the law, they will contact the company right away asking that the ads be stopped.

Since information about medication risks can be confusing, pharmaceutical companies should be as informative and transparent as possible in their communications with the public. The FDA recommends that drug companies use consumer-friendly language. In some cases, ads are permitted to give only the most important risks.

Learning About Types of DTC Ads

There are 3 types of prescription drug ads—product-claim ads, reminder ads, and help-seeking ads:

Product-Claim Ads

Product-claim ads are the most common. They mention a drug’s name and what it is for. The FDA requires product-claims to have a fair balance of information about the drug’s risks and benefits and disclose risks in a brief summary (for print ads) or give an overview of risks and information on where to find out more (for broadcast ads).

Reminder Ads

Reminder ads provide the name of the medication, but not what it is used for. They usually begin with: Ask your doctor about.

They are not required to provide risk information.

Help-Seeking Ads

Help-seeking ads educate consumers about a disease or condition and let people know that treatments exist, but do not name a specific drug. Health-seeking ads are not required to provide risk information. These adds are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, rather than the FDA.

Finding Out More About Drug Risks

With all the information that is required in DTC ads, consumers can be left feeling overwhelmed and confused. While the benefits of the drugs are often explicitly defined, the risks may not be as clear.

In print ads, you can read the brief summary that details the risks associated with the drug. In most cases, this summary is not brief at all and is filled with technical information that is hard to understand. And in broadcast ads, the overview of risks is often presented quickly at the end of the commercial, so you can easily miss important information. You should be aware that the FDA does not ban ads for any prescription drugs because of potentially serious side effects, addiction, or the injury. They do however, prohibit these drugs from being advertised through reminder ads.

Fortunately, most ads note that it is essential to talk with your doctor about the risks of any medication before you start taking it. This is the best advice of all. The doctor who will be prescribing the advertised medication is in the best position to determine whether or not its benefits outweigh its risks in your unique situation. Remember, the advertisement is geared to the general public, not you in particular.

Using Ad Information

In one study, researchers looked at the rate at which doctors prescribed prescription drugs for patients with major depression. The study found that when patients request prescription drugs from their doctor, doctors are more likely to prescribe them than when no request is made. This study underscored the fact that patients have the power to influence their own healthcare.

While DTC ads may be useful to some consumers, like any other advertisement it is important to place the information in its proper context. Even though the content of the ad is governed by FDA guidelines and may be reasonably accurate, it is not necessarily unbiased. The goal of DTC ads is to increase drug sales of a specific brand of medication, and to do that, companies place their drugs in the most positive light possible. Consumers should be aware the advertised drug may be one of many similar brands that do the same thing, including generic drugs that are designed to save money.

If you see a drug in an ad that you think you might benefit from, or if you think you may have the condition the drug is used to treat, look for other sources of reliable, unbiased information. Then, have a chat with your doctor, who is in the best position to apply this information to your particular medical circumstances.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

Food and Drug Administration


Healthy Alberta

Insurance Canada


Background on drug advertising. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: Updated June 19, 2015. Accessed May 18, 2016.

Kravitz RL, Epstein RM, Feldman MD, et al. Influence of patients’ requests for direct-to-consumer advertised antidepressants: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2005;293:1995-2002.

Prescription drug advertising. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: Updated June 19, 2015. Accessed May 18, 2016.

Prescription drug advertising: questions and answers. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: Updated June 19, 2015. Accessed May 18, 2016.

Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 7/22/2014