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Drug Ads and Pop Culture

It's impossible to turn on the television these days without seeing a commercial for some kind of medication. More and more, these commercials have been using colorful graphics, powerful iconic images, and other sophisticated, time-tested psychological triggers to hawk their products. They are called direct-to-consumer advertisements, since they market to potential patients rather than doctors or health care facilities, and they are taking up a greater and greater portion of the pharmaceutical industry's enormous advertising budget each year.

drug advertising

Vast Amounts of Money!

In the 1990s, direct-to-consumer drug advertising increased at a compounded annual rate of 30 percent. By 1995, drug companies had tripled the amount of money they were spending on it. In 2000, drug companies spent $2.5 billion on mass media advertisements, and this number increased to $3 billion in 2003.

Why Advertise to Patients Rather Than Doctors?

It can be difficult to see at first why so much money is spent advertising prescription drugs to consumers, when the drugs can only be obtained through a doctor. It would seem to make more sense to advertise to doctors only, since doctors are, to all appearances, the ones in charge of which drugs are sold. But in fact, direct-to-consumer advertising works very well indeed. According to Mike Fillon, author of Ephedra: Fact or Fiction, "The average number of prescriptions per person in the United States increased from 7.3 in 1992 to 10.4 in 2000. Along with this increase in demand, there has been a shift towards the use of more expensive medications. It's more than a coincidence that many of the most expensive medications happen to be those medications that are most heavily advertised." Between 1999 and 2000, the rate of increase in prescriptions for the most heavily advertised drugs was six times as fast as prescriptions for all other drugs.

How Does it Work?

While consumers may not actually write their own prescription, surveys reveal that if a patient requests a specific drug from a doctor, they will get a prescription for it more than 70 percent of the time. So, say a consumer has been feeling somewhat sad and sees the Zoloft commercial with the sad little animated ball. The viewer may identify with the cartoon character and the symptoms described, and begin to believe they are depressed. And if they go to a doctor and request Zoloft, they are likely to get it - even if they have never been diagnosed with depression. Meanwhile, the same drugs are also promoted aggressively to doctors, who hear exaggerated versions of drugs' benefits, and often little about their side effects. As a result, they are generally happy to prescribe the drugs when asked for them.

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