Have you ever watched a commercial for a prescription drug and been surprised to hear the incredibly long list of side effects? And have you noticed that while the list is being read, there is often a pleasant visual image that has nothing to do with what you’re hearing?

If so, consider yourself a savvy and skeptical consumer. Many patients are unwittingly taken in by advertising campaigns that gloss over the side effects of dangerous drugs and do not adequately inform them of the risks. In order to protect consumers in New Jersey and across the country, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would like to make some changes to the ways that pharmaceutical companies are allowed to advertise.

Why do drug companies use this advertising technique? Quite frankly, because it works. An educator in the field of communications says: “They use the tranquil scenes to lessen the impact. If you just listened to the words, it would scare the heck out of you.”

This is one of the key problems that the FDA wants to address. The agency said that, “Critics of TV ads speculate that visual images of emotionally pleasant scenes during the presentation of risk information detract from the comprehension of that risk information.”

In 2010, the FDA proposed a rule that direct-to-consumer drug ads shown on television should not have “distracting representations” showing during key moments, such as while listing potential side effects. The rule has not yet been finalized, because the FDA is still hearing public comments and conducting studies.

Hopefully, the agency will deliver a ruling soon. In the meantime, consumers should take a skeptical approach to pharmaceutical advertisements. When a drug commercial catches your interest, close your eyes and listen the next time it comes on. You will probably be scared by what you hear, but at least you will be informed.

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