Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 14, Issue 11, pp 651-657

First online:

Direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising and the public

  • Robert A. BellAffiliated withDepartment of Communication, University of California
  • , Richard L. KravitzAffiliated withDivision of General Internal Medicine and Director, Center for Health Services Research in Primary Care, University of California
  • , Michael S. WilkesAffiliated withDepartment of Medicine, School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles

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OBJECTIVE: Drug manufacturers are intensely promoting their products directly to consumers, but the impact has not been widely studied. Consumers’ awareness and understanding of, attitudes toward, and susceptibility to direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising were examined.

DESIGN: Random-digit dialing telephone survey with a random household member selection procedure (completion and response rates, 58% and 69%, respectively).

SETTING: Respondents were interviewed while they were at their residences.

PARTICIPANTS: Complete data were obtained from 329 adults in Sacramento County, California.

MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: Outcome measures included awareness of advertisements for 10 selected drugs, misconceptions about DTC advertising, attitudes toward DTC ads, and behavioral responses to such promotions. The influence of demographic characteristics, health status, attitudes, beliefs, and media exposure on awareness and behaviors was examined. On average, respondents were aware of advertisements for 3.7 of the 10 drugs; awareness varied from 8% for Buspar (buspirone) to 72% for Claritin (loratadine). Awareness was associated with prescription drug use, media exposure, positive attitudes toward DTC advertising, poorer health, and insurance status. Substantial misconceptions were revealed; e.g., 43% thought that only “completely safe” drugs could be advertised. Direct-to-consumer advertisements had led one third of respondents to ask their physicians for drug information and one fifth to request a prescription.

CONCLUSIONS: Direct-to-consumer advertisements are reaching the public, but selectively so, and affecting their behaviors. Implications for public policy are examined.

Key Words

prescription drugs advertising drug safety drug promotion drug regulation