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Truth: The Active Ingredient in Pharma Advertising

October 3,2018

Pharma advertising continues to be judged unfairly. Critics say it misinforms the public, medicalizes normal conditions, and encourages the overuse of prescription drugs. But the fact is, for more than 50 years, pharma advertising has been proven both safe and effective.

First, a little background. In 2003, a Harvard University study found that for every dollar spent on consumer advertising, an additional $4.20 in prescription sales were generated.[1] Since that time, the pharma industry has become the largest buyer of TV advertising,[2] and prescription sales have grown from $121 billion annually to $360 billion.[3] Today, drugs that are supported by advertising are prescribed nine times more than drugs without ads.[4]

Because pharma advertising has been so successful, skeptics assume that it must be creating a need where none exists. But a simpler explanation is this: Truth in advertising works.

Pharma ads, unlike other forms of advertising, tell the whole truth. Before a drug is FDA-approved, it must demonstrate safety and efficacy in clinical trials. This lets consumers know that the drug actually does what it claims. Just as important, when a pharma ad makes a claim, the FDA requires it to include a “fair balance” of benefits and risks. For TV advertising, this means the commercial must present all or most of the drug’s potential risks.

Savvy marketers discovered years ago that making a damaging admission about their product’s potential risk or drawbacks actually increases their credibility.[5] It shows honesty and integrity. For pharmaceuticals, it also confirms the prospect’s intuition that a truly effective drug is likely to have side effects. That’s right. Full disclosure actually makes pharma ads more effective. Honesty really is the best policy.

In one survey, more than 80 percent of the public felt that pharma advertising did a fair to excellent job of informing them about potential benefits of pharma drugs, what conditions the drugs treat, and potential side effects.

No other products are held to the same strict standard for truth in advertising that pharma ads are—but maybe they should be.

Most over-the-counter medications have some of the same side effects. For example, non-prescription Motrin can cause fatal intestinal bleeding, stroke, or heart attack.[6] Alka-Seltzer can cause bloody urine, seizures, and hallucinations.[7] Even a tube of bubblegum-flavored toothpaste has enough fluoride to kill a small child.[8] But non-prescription products aren’t required to state those risks, so they don’t.

Maybe it’s time for all products to adhere to FDA guidelines and disclose their potential side effects. Starbucks would warn us about addiction, sleeplessness, and irritable bowel syndrome. McDonald’s would remind us about heart disease and obesity. Coke and Pepsi would disclose diabetes.

And why stop there? Perhaps even non-food products should be required to disclaim their potential downsides. Lottery tickets could caution us about poverty and gambling. Fitness centers: feelings of inadequacy. Video games: loss of social skills. Legos: crippling foot injuries. You get the idea.

Contrary to what the detractors say, pharma advertising isn’t misinforming the public or foisting dangerous drugs on an unsuspecting market. It’s simply telling the truth—the whole truth, warts and all. And that’s not just a strategy for greater sales, it’s also a prescription for a well-informed public and better healthcare.


Mark Lange, who is part of the Fingerpaint Phoenix creative team, has spent more than 25 years as a creative director working on campaigns in a multitude of verticals. Lange’s work has been widely recognized in the industry, winning ADDY Awards in both the Phoenix and Seattle markets.


[1] https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/demand-effects-of-recent-changes-in-prescription-drug-promotion-report.pdf
[2] https://www.marketingcharts.com/advertising-trends/spending-and-spenders-105163
[3] https://www.statista.com/statistics/184914/prescription-drug-expenditures-in-the-us-since-1960/
[4] https://prescriptiondrugs.procon.org  
[5] https://bluinc.com/damaging-admission/ 
[6] https://www.drugs.com/motrin.html
[7] https://www.drugs.com/sfx/alka-seltzer-original-side-effects.html
[8] http://fluoridealert.org/studies/acute01/
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