As the quantity of prescription drug commercials continues to grow, so does the average number of hours Americans spend watching them.
The Austin Daily Texan published an op-ed piece this July on the overall advertising budget of pharmaceutical companies and the growing ubiquity of their television ads. Until the late 1980s, drug advertising was highly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As the Texan points out, “The pharmaceutical industry [previously] had to list all side effects and associated risks for each drug. After the FDA relaxed their rules in 1999, however, Big Pharma only needed to hastily mutter a few of the ‘major’ side effects at the end of the commercial, and the direct-to-consumer advertising frenzy had begun.”
“The pharmaceutical industry now spends over $4.5 billion per year influencing people to buy drugs. That number is recouped up to four times over in pure profit and will only grow as the pharmaceutical industry swells to an estimated $1.3 trillion by 2019,” according to the paper.
The author of the piece says the typical American spends more time watching drug commercials than at the doctor’s office. “We each sit through an average 16 hours of side effect recitations each year. These stereotypically bland commercials, for anything from antidepressants to antacids, may seem harmless, but it would surprise many to know that some [FDA-approved] medicines are banned everywhere except the US and New Zealand,” he adds.
The industry, meanwhile, argues the advertising informs and empowers the consumer to learn about medicines that may be useful to them. The op-ed piece correctly points out, however, that a truly informed consumer “would not be so quick to jump on Big Pharma’s pill-popping bandwagon. The overwhelming majority of doctors think direct consumer advertising misleads patients, encourages drug overuse, increases the cost of healthcare, and should be scaled back or banned.”
Chief Nursing Officer Rosemary Brown of Duke Raleigh Hospital told the Texan “I think the real problem lies with us—with you and with me. We have become a nation that believes our health issues, our quality of life, and even our happiness can be fixed with the swipe of a pen across a prescription pad.”
Adds the editorial writer, “The pharmaceutical industry’s obligation to its shareholders has disguised itself as the public’s right to good health, and we let it. That we stomach slow-motion footage of a smiling middle-aged woman walking her dog while a tranquil narrator mentions that her shiny new antidepressant might cause liver failure and suicidal thoughts is deeply disturbing and indicative of how far we have slipped into the ‘medicate first, ask questions later’ mentality.”
As the Texan piece suggests, the relaxation of rules on pharmaceutical advertising has not only increased the quantity of ads television viewers see, it has increased the sophistication of the commercials’ deception through careful editing. While the brain is processing the audio and video information in an ad, producers attempt to diminish the effect of certain words they are legally obligated to include. So precisely when the narrator says “death,” “heart attack,” and/or “stroke,” as part of the list of adverse effects, a timed transition occurs in the visual image–a quick blur may be followed by completely new scenery and characters, for example–thus distracting the viewer’s mind, ever briefly, from the frightening word being uttered.