(Inside Science) -- “Don’t Rasp Your Throat With Harsh Irritants, Reach for a LUCKY instead,” reads one Lucky Strike Cigarettes ad from the 1930s. It’s almost beyond belief today that a cigarette company could get away with an ad touting its product as beneficial for the throat, but according to a new study, the days of false and misleading commercials are far from over.
Researchers at Dartmouth College, in N.H., and the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to check up on what drug companies say in their U.S. TV commercials. Their findings suggest a frequent disregard for the truth. Sixty percent of prescription drug ads and 80 percent of over the counter drug ads were found to be misleading or false.
“There were cases of blatant lying, but these half-truths form more than half of our analysis,” said study author Adrienne E. Faerber.
Faerber became skeptical of the assertions made in drug commercials when Claritin moved from a prescription-only drug to a product you could buy over the counter, suddenly the commercials made, “six times more claims for the benefits of the drug,” she said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for ensuring prescription drug ads be factual, is well aware of the problem and actively solicits help from viewers.
“The FDA encourages everyone to watch and let the FDA know if they see misleading or unbalanced prescription drug promotion,” said FDA spokesperson Andrea Fischer.
In a paper published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine earlier this month, Faerber randomly chose 84 prescription drug commercials and 84 over the counter drug commercials, which aired during the nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN between 2008 and 2010. Analysts identified each ad’s major claim and subsequently evaluated its authenticity. The claims were classified as “objectively true” if there was evidence to support it, the commercial didn’t exaggerate the evidence, and if no important details were left out. It was deemed “misleading” if the claims were exaggerated or if important details were omitted, and “false” if there was no evidence to back the claim.
Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at Insead business school in Singapore is surprised by Faerber’s findings, “I would expect firms to be careful when it comes to what they say, especially when it comes to products like pharmaceuticals,” he wrote in an email.
One of the repeat offenders, said Faerber, were erectile dysfunction drugs. “The various drug companies phrase it differently, but they all play on the idea of being “ready” when the moment is right,” but Faerber said readiness is about more than a physical reaction, it’s an emotional state – especially where sex is concerned. “They implied more than a physiological response.”
Fischer said the FDA works to prevent misleading information and outright fallacies in drug commercials “through comprehensive surveillance,” adding that “drug companies are required to submit all advertisements and other promotional materials at the time they make them public.”
The FDA doesn’t block or grant permission for an ad to air but instead reviews the ad once it’s live and notifies the drug companies when it spots an untruth. In a letter dated July 31, 2013 to Merz Pharmaceuticals about an ad for Naftin, an antifungal cream, the FDA pointed out that while the ad discloses the common adverse reactions to the drug, it omits warnings of local adverse reactions. This led the FDA to conclude that Merz misleadingly implies that Naftin is safer to use than it actually is. As of Sept. 27, 2013, Merz had not corrected its web page to reflect the FDA’s concerns and did not respond to a request for comment.
Faerber’s results showed that it was more common for an over the counter drug to be misleading or false than a prescription drug. The reason why remains unclear, but the FDA oversees prescription drug ads while the Federal Trade Commission is responsible for over the counter drugs.
“The FTC is more reactive and the FDA is proactive,” said Faerber, “The FTC is also less specialized.” Faerber suggests that it might help if the FDA and FTC were to coordinate efforts for the first few months after a drug is declassified for over the counter sale.
Carmon’s own research investigates consumer attitudes towards drug commercials. Somewhat ironically, his most recent study, published in the journal Psychological Science, indicates that if drug companies are more upfront about side effects it helps their sales. He compared consumer perception of an ad that included a truthful warning versus the same ad, but omitting the warning. He found that initially, the reaction to ads with warnings was detrimental to the drug’s appeal.
However, after a few days the situation changes. In the long run, Carmon said, the warnings themselves become less prominent in customers' minds. What’s left is the perception of trust, he said, along with increased product appeal, and sales.
Shortly after publication, Matthew Bennett, Senior Vice President of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America called the research "a subjective, non-rigorous analysis of a small group of direct-to-consumer advertisements." Bennett's primary concern came from what he considers an "overbroad" definition of the term "misleading" to describe the advertisements in the study.
"The study classifies any general statements about a product and lifestyle statements as being 'misleading' when, in fact, these statements do not violate FDA law or regulation and are not uncommon or illegal advertising practices," said Bennett.
Bennett also said that many of the biopharmaceutical research manufacturers voluntarily submit their television ads to the FDA for review before they are aired, giving the FDA the opportunity to pull the ads if they are deemed inappropriate or misleading.