Cancer Ads Focus Emotion, Not Facts

Print ads and TV commercials about cancer centers are more likely designed to generate an emotional reaction than to inform you about risks, benefits, costs, and insurance availability at those centers. That’s what University of Pittsburgh researchers discovered.

In the first study of its kind, the researchers analyzed the informational and emotional content of 409 unique direct-to-consumer advertisements placed by 102 cancer centers in top print and television media markets. (Internet advertisements were not included.)

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What the Researchers Found

Only 18 percent of the ads promoted screening, and 13 percent touted supportive services, while 88 percent promoted treatments. Risks of these treatments were described in only 2 percent of the ads, yet their benefits were described 27 percent of the time. Few advertisements mentioned coverage or costs (5 percent), and none mentioned specific insurance plans.

Emotional appeals appear frequently in the ads—in 85 percent of them. These appeals evoked hope for survival (61 percent), described cancer treatment as a fight or battle (41 percent), and induced fear (30 percent), according to the study.

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Testimonials Focus on Hope Instead of Actual Results

Nearly one half of advertisements included patient testimonials, which were usually focused on survival, rarely included disclaimers (15 percent), and never described the results that a typical patient might expect.

This study, which received primary funding from the National Institutes of Health, looked only at the actual content of the ads. It did not investigate whether the emphasis on hopes and fears of cancer patients and their families actually misled them to less than optimal or even inappropriate treatment decisions.

In an accompanying editorial, Gregory A. Abel, MD, MPH, assistant professor in medicine, Harvard Medical School, cautioned that banning cancer center advertising may not be a viable alternative to current emotion-centered marketing. “This advertising may have a beneficial cancer–normalizing and destigmatizing effect that a ban would eliminate,” he wrote.

The researchers suggested that further work is needed to understand how these advertisements influence patient understanding and expectations of benefit from cancer treatments.

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