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

ABSTRACT

BACKGROUND

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.

OBJECTIVE

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.

DESIGN

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.

MAIN MEASURES

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.

KEY RESULTS

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.

CONCLUSIONS

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.

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Acknowledgements

Mike Endries, Scott Falk and Matt Mattila, University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy, assisted in developing the coding method, coding ads, and resolving coding discrepancies. They were paid an hourly wage for their work. We thank Drs. Betty Chewning, Robert Drechsel, Albert Gunther, and Henry Young for their valuable input on the design and analysis of this research. Dr. Faerber was supported by the Joseph P. Wiederholt Distinguished Graduate Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education Postdoctoral Fellowship, http://www.afpenet.org. This research study was supported by a dissertation grant from The Sonderegger Research Center, http://www.pharmacy.wisc.edu/src. No funding bodies had any role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. This work was presented, in part, at the Midwest Social and Administrative Sciences in Pharmacy Conference in August 2012.

Conflict of Interest

Dr. Faerber declares she has no conflict of interest. Dr. Kreling reports that he has served as a consultant for local law firms in four legal cases regarding projecting future drug costs.

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Correspondence to Adrienne E. Faerber PhD.

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Faerber, A.E., Kreling, D.H. Content Analysis of False and Misleading Claims in Television Advertising for Prescription and Nonprescription Drugs. J GEN INTERN MED 29, 110–118 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-013-2604-0

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KEY WORDS

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