Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 110–118

Content Analysis of False and Misleading Claims in Television Advertising for Prescription and Nonprescription Drugs


DOI: 10.1007/s11606-013-2604-0

Cite this article as:
Faerber, A.E. & Kreling, D.H. J GEN INTERN MED (2014) 29: 110. doi:10.1007/s11606-013-2604-0



False and misleading advertising for drugs can harm consumers and the healthcare system, and previous research has demonstrated that physician-targeted drug advertisements may be misleading. However, there is a dearth of research comparing consumer-targeted drug advertising to evidence to evaluate whether misleading or false information is being presented in these ads.


To compare claims in consumer-targeted television drug advertising to evidence, in order to evaluate the frequency of false or misleading television drug advertising targeted to consumers.


A content analysis of a cross-section of television advertisements for prescription and nonprescription drugs aired from 2008 through 2010. We analyzed commercial segments containing prescription and nonprescription drug advertisements randomly selected from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, a census of national news broadcasts.


For each advertisement, the most-emphasized claim in each ad was identified based on claim iteration, mode of communication, duration and placement. This claim was then compared to evidence by trained coders, and categorized as being objectively true, potentially misleading, or false. Potentially misleading claims omitted important information, exaggerated information, made lifestyle associations, or expressed opinions. False claims were factually false or unsubstantiated.


Of the most emphasized claims in prescription (n = 84) and nonprescription (n = 84) drug advertisements, 33 % were objectively true, 57 % were potentially misleading and 10 % were false. In prescription drug ads, there were more objectively true claims (43 %) and fewer false claims (2 %) than in nonprescription drug ads (23 % objectively true, 7 % false). There were similar numbers of potentially misleading claims in prescription (55 %) and nonprescription (61 %) drug ads.


Potentially misleading claims are prevalent throughout consumer-targeted prescription and nonprescription drug advertising on television. These results are in conflict with proponents who argue the social value of drug advertising is found in informing consumers about drugs.


direct-to-consumer advertising over-the-counter drug advertising over-the-counter drug false or misleading advertising content analysis 

Supplementary material

11606_2013_2604_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (135 kb)
ESM 1(PDF 134 kb)

Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Medicine and the MediaThe Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical PracticeLebanonUSA
  2. 2.Division of Social and Administrative Sciences in PharmacyUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison School of PharmacyMadisonUSA
  3. 3.Sonderegger Research CenterUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison School of PharmacyMadisonUSA

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