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Drug Ads Must Offer Side Effect Information

Mar 25, 2002 | USA Today

Imagine a car commercial where a voiceover must warn you that driving the vehicle as directed could lead to a fatal crash. Or financial services ads that remind viewers that taking the advice of your broker could result in a financial heart attack.

That's how it is in the world of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs.

The Food and Drug Administration (news - web sites) (FDA) demands that TV and print ads for medications such as Lipitor (news - web sites) and Vioxx declare possible side effects.

Why? ''Because they're dangerous,'' says Steven Findlay, director of research for the National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM). ''Nearly every prescription drug, and most over-the-counter drugs, have side effects.''

But the rules also make drug advertising ''the most tortured process'' this side of the tobacco marketing, Findlay notes.

And the long, jarring warnings also have become irresistible fodder for parody by both comedians and advertisers of non-drug products.

Whoopi Goldberg likes to joke about minor side effects, such as your face ''falling off.'' Agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco created a commercial for E-Trade that includes a parody ad for a fake allergy drug called ''Nozulla'' that can lead to ''itchy rashes, full-body hair loss and projectile vomiting.''

Despite the jokes, prescription drug ads have mushroomed since the FDA loosened restrictions on media advertising in 1987.

The numbers tell the story:

* Drug-ad spending rose 189% to $2.5 billion in 2001 from $859 million in 1987, according to media tracker CMR.

* More ad bucks are spent on some drug brands than many household name brands. Merck spent $135 million to advertise arthritis drug Vioxx in 2001, according to CMR. That's more than the $118 million Anheuser-Busch spent on Budweiser and nearly as much as the $155 million Coca-Cola spent on Coke Classic, CMR says.

* More consumers are ''asking their doctor'' for specific prescriptions. During a recession year, prescription drug sales grew an estimated 15%-20% to $175 billion in 2001, according to NIHCM.

Some consumers, however, may be feeling overdosed by these ads, according to the results for Lipitor commercials surveyed by Ad Track, USA TODAY's weekly consumer poll.

Of those familiar with ads for the anti-cholesterol medication, only 12% like them ''a lot'' vs. the Ad Track average of 22%. Just 14% think the ads are ''very effective,'' compared with the average of 23%.

Sales of Lipitor grew 25% in 2001 to $4.4 billion, according to Pfizer. But the company, which CMR says spent $50 million on Lipitor ads last year, declined to comment on the Ad Track results. Ditto for ad agency Merkley Newman Harty, New York.

Image expert Martyn Straw of Interbrand in New York wonders why Pfizer makes fun of the stylish mature consumers in the Lipitor ads when they're supposed to represent the drug's customers.

''There's a flippancy to the ads that's not quite right. This is too important to be joking about,'' he says.

Straw notes that consumers generally have been ''all ears'' when drug ads come on the air -- either because they have the malady talked about, or they are worried about getting it.

''These ads appeal to the hypochondriacs in all of us.''

He says to expect many more as baby boomers age.

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