Interpreting Prescription Drug Advertising
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
In direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, pharmaceutical companies advertise their prescription drugs on TV, the radio, the 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 prescriptions.
The use of DTC advertising is controversial. There was a time when drug ads were banned. That's no longer true, but these ads encourage the use of specific brand-name drugs and other costly treatments. But the ads may also alert consumers to under-used treatment options.
Regulating Prescription Drug Advertising
Prescription drug ads have been regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1962. The FDA created requirements for the content of prescription drug ads to make sure that consumers are not misled or deceived by ads. They require that pharmaceutical companies fairly communicate the benefits and risks of their advertised drugs.
DTC ads do not need to go through FDA approval before being aired. Some companies may seek the advice of the FDA on their own before releasing ads. If the FDA thinks that an ad violates the law, they will contact the company right away asking that the ad be stopped.
Information about medicine risks can be confusing. This is why companies should be as informative and transparent as they can with the public. The FDA advises drug companies to use consumer-friendly language. Some ads are advised to give only the most important risks.
Learning About Types of DTC Ads
There are three types of drug ads:
Product-claim ads are the most common. They mention a drug’s name and what it is for. The FDA requires that they have a fair balance of information about the drug’s risks and benefits. They should also reveal risks in a brief summary (for print ads) or give an overview on where to find out more (for broadcast ads).
Reminder ads give the name of the medicine, but not what it is used for. They usually begin with: Ask your doctor about.
They do not need to provide risk information.
Help-seeking ads teach consumers about a disease or condition. They let people know that treatments exist, but do not name a specific drug. These ads are not required to provide risk information. They are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, rather than the FDA.
Finding Out More About Drug Risks
DTC ads can leave consumers overwhelmed and confused. The benefits of drugs are often stated, but the risks may not always be as clear.
In print ads, you can read the brief summary that details the risks of the drug. It is usually long and contains hard to understand information. In broadcast ads, the overview of risks is often presented quickly at the end of the commercial. You can easily miss important information. You should be aware that the FDA does not ban ads for any drugs because of serious side effects, addiction, or injury. But they do prohibit these drugs from being advertised through reminder ads.
Luckily, most ads advise people to talk to their doctors about the risks of a medicine before you start taking it. This is the best advice of all. The doctor who will be prescribing the advertised medicine will know whether or not its benefits outweigh its risks on your health. Remember, the ad aimed at the public, not you in particular.
Using Ad Information
DTC ads may be useful to some consumers, but it is important to put them in their proper context. The content is governed by the FDA, but it still may be biased. The goal of DTC ads is to increase drug sales. To do that, companies try to make their product look as good as possible. Consumers should be aware the drug may be one of many brands that do the same thing, including generic drugs that can save them money.
Look for other sources of reliable and trustworthy information when considering a drug you think may be helpful. Then, talk to your doctor about whether it would be helpful to you.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Food and Drug Administration
Background on drug advertising. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/prescription-drug-advertising/background-drug-advertising. Accessed October 18, 2021.
Prescription drug advertising. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-consumers-and-patients-drugs/prescription-drug-advertising. Accessed October 18, 2021.
Prescription drug advertising: questions and answers. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/prescription-drug-advertising/prescription-drug-advertising-questions-and-answers. Accessed October 18, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 10/18/2021
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