Turn on your television. Soon enough, you’ll see one of the ads: someone in a sweater and khakis walking in a park, looking off longingly into the distance. Before long, a voice-over chimes in with, “Talk to your doctor about…”

Drug advertisements like these paint a pretty picture, but, as you might expect, not all of them are telling the whole truth.

According to a new study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, six out of 10 claims that appear in pharmaceutical ads during the nightly news could be construed as misleading.

“Healthcare consumers need unrestricted access to high-quality information about health, but these TV drug ads had misleading statements that omitted or exaggerated information,” Adrienne E. Faerber of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice, said a statement accompanying the research. “These results conflict with arguments that drug ads are helping inform consumers.”

Misleading or False?

The U.S. and New Zealand are the only countries in the world that allow drug companies to advertise directly to potential patients. In 2009, pharmaceutical companies spent $4.8 billion on advertising, which was only about a quarter of all money spent to promote drugs, according to one study.

Using data from the Vanderbilt University TV News Archive, researchers examined 168 TV ads for prescription and over-the-counter drugs that played during the nightly news on ABC, CBS, and NBC from 2008 to 2010.

Overall, researchers found that most claims made in the drug ads were technically true: only one in 10 ads contained either false or unsubstantiated claims. However, a majority of the ads—six out of 10—were misleading. They either left out important information, exaggerated information, included opinions, or made meaningless associations between drugs and an improved lifestyle.

Researchers say that over-the-counter drugs (OTC) are the biggest purveyors of misleading information: eight out of 10 OTC drug ads they studied were misleading or false.

This isn't the first time that the pharmaceutical industry has found itself in hot water over advertising claims.

An Advertising Gray Area

In a 2004 survey conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 65 percent of physicians believed direct-to-consumer ads confused their patients about the risks-versus-benefits of the drugs being advertised.

In the same survey, 75 percent of doctors agreed that the ads caused patients to believe a particular drug works better than it actually does.

One example of an advertising fight gone wrong occurred in 2010 when drug maker AstraZeneca claimed that their acid reflux drug Nexium was better than its competitor Prilosec, which became generic in 2001. Though the two drugs are nearly identical compounds, a federal judge in Delaware allowed AstraZeneca to continue to claim that their product was better.

Another major criticism of the direct-to-consumer advertising model is not what they say, but what they leave out.

A 2007 study published in the found that no drug advertisements touted lifestyle changes as part of therapy, but 95 percent of the ads studied used emotional appeals. Such claims included losing (58 percent) or regaining (85 percent) control over some aspect of a person’s life. 

“The ads have limited educational value and may oversell the benefits of drugs in ways that might conflict with promoting population health,” the study concluded.

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