(Inside Science) -- On Sunday when people gather to watch the Super Bowl, they will cheer and chat, but many will only pay casual attention to the actual game. When the ads come on, however, many spectators will look up from their phones or pause their conversations to focus on the commercials, which routinely include over-the-top production and celebrity cameos.
Because of the number of viewers, the rate for a 30-second spot during Sunday's Super Bowl is about $5.6 million, according to AdAge. That exposure is why pharmacist and graduate student Matthew Gray thought it would make an excellent way to study how well ads for prescription drugs worked.
Gray and a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found Medicare prescription data for two drugs that were both approved by the FDA in 2014 to treat toenail fungus. They're called efinaconazole (brand name Jublia) and tavaborole (brand name Kerydin). The team took the data regarding prescriptions for the two drugs and investigated what happened after Jublia was advertised during both the 2015 and 2016 Super Bowls.
They found that the ads worked even better than they expected. In February 2015, following the first ad, prescriptions of both drugs jumped dramatically. Using a mathematical model, the researchers estimated that the rate of filled prescriptions would have risen by 40% even if the ads had not run. But with the ads, prescriptions rose far more, by 91%.
For Kerydin, which was used by many fewer people but works in a similar way to Jublia, according to the researchers, the model suggested that the rate of increase without ads would have been 90%. But after the ad, prescriptions increased by 275%.
In 2016, when a Jublia ad starring retired football stars Howie Long, Deion Sanders and Phil Simms ran, prescriptions jumped by about 21%, according to the analysis. Tavaborole didn't get the same bump on the second go-around, as its usage grew at about the same rate as in previous months.
The study was published in the journal Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy.
The researchers had Medicare data up to 2016, but not for more recent years. They also were not able to look beyond the proportion of people covered under Medicaid's prescription drug program. But the results do hint that direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs is a powerful driver of sales.
"The benefits and risks of direct-to-consumer drug advertising are really on the forefront of health policy debates," said Gray. "We think that our results add an interesting perspective."