December 3, 2008

Marketing Prescription Drugs, American-Style

by Camila Perez Gabilondo

Advertisement is different in every country and a powerful force in today's society. A particular type of advertisement struck me the most after moving to the U.S. and consuming American television, newspapers and magazines. In my mind, medicine was never before trying to break its way into the consumer's mind in such an aggressive way, but in this country, prescription medicine is sold to us every day through the media as if it were a new kind of soda or a tasteful snack.

The array of prescription drugs with dangerous side effects that we are urged to consume day by day when getting our news or watching our favorite show is abundant and diverse. From sleeping pills and birth control to cervical cancer immunization, medical treatments which must be recommended and prescribed by a doctor are directly advertised to the consumer, as if we could make such decisions on our own.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs is very common in the U.S. and audiences are therefore accustomed to making important decisions about their health on their own, which some argue leads to an abuse of prescriptions drugs and a preference for expensive treatments, which, of course, benefits drug companies. Drugs are advertised as if they were as soft a remedy as Vic's vapor rub when they are indeed medical treatments that should not be administered without the control of a doctor.

The dangerous risks of these drugs have to be mentioned in advertisements, but this is done in a way that barely leaves an impression on the consumer: the possibility of suffering from such conditions as blood clots and heart attacks is briefly narrated at the end of the commercial in a light-hearted way. However, for a viewer who is not used to this, such as me, the side effects are what resonates the most and what deters me from paying attention to the product.

This leads us to wonder whether the American audience is subject to danger from the media. The success of these products shows that perhaps the audience is too gullible. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates these kinds of commercials, but it may not be enough. In a January 2003 survey report, the FDA estimated that 88 percent of patients who ask their doctors for a prescription drug by brand name don't actually have the symptoms that the drug treats. With more and more products out on the market and more money invested by drug companies in commercials, this number could go down. Therefore, the far-reaching power of advertisement should be controlled when it comes to such a serious matter as the consumer's health.

(Photo by Adamos Maximus of Mesa, AZ via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a satire from Saturday Night Live about such ads, especially those dealing with birth control, please check the video below.)

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