An Emory University School of Medicine study, led and authored by Erica Brownfield, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Emory, Division of General Medicine, reveals that increased advertising by pharmaceutical companies is disproportionately focused on women and older viewers, intensifying the public's awareness of over-the-counter and prescription medications.
The study, published in the November/December issue of the Journal of Health Communications, concludes that while direct-to-consumer drug ads may be useful for increasing public awareness and knowledge of specific conditions and available treatments, the ads may also lead to inaccurate self-diagnoses or incorrect perceptions of illness risk or treatment efficacy.
The study, conducted for one week in the summer of 2001, explored the quantity, frequency and placement of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drug advertisements on television programs on three major networks in Atlanta -- ABC, CBS and NBC. Over the course of the sample week, direct-to-consumer ads for prescription and OTC drugs were most commonly aired during middle-afternoon and early-evening hours. The highest peaks were 2 - 4 p.m., and 6 - 8 p.m. The targeted program genres were news programs and soap operas, where nearly 60 percent of all direct-to-consumer drug advertising was placed.
The study's authors are: Brownfield; Jay M. Bernhardt, PhD, assistant professor of behavioral science and health education, Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health; Jennifer L. Phan, MD, hospitalist at Piedmont Hospital; Mark V. Williams, MD, professor of medicine and hospitalist, Emory University Hospital; and Ruth M. Parker, MD, associate professor of medicine, Division of General Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine. The authors received no funding for the study.
To date, Dr. Brownfield says no studies have ever quantified the amount of direct-to-consumer drug advertising there actually is on television. She also adds that because the average American is probably exposed to more than 30 hours of direct-to-consumer advertisements each year, many often come to their annual doctor's appointment with biased opinions about certain medications.
"What we decided to do was look at the three major networks -- television only -- and decide how many direct-to-consumer advertisements there were for prescription and the over-the-counter drugs," explains Dr. Brownfield, who is also an internist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. "We looked at all of the commercials, and we found that, if you look at all direct-to-consumer drug advertising for prescription and over-the-counter drugs, the number, the amount, and the percentage of commercial time is actually pretty high. In addition, these ads were placed in news programs or soap operas, and, when you think about who watches soap operas and news programs, you realize it's usually women, who are the major healthcare decision makers in the family, and the elderly, who consume the most amount of medication."
Over the course of the week, 18,906 advertisements appeared in the 504-hour sample of network television. There were 907 advertisements for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and 428 advertisements for prescription drugs, representing 4.8 percent and 2.3 percent of all ads, respectively. The authors note that while OTC drug ads were more common, prescription drug ads were significantly longer. The average length of OTC drug ads was 21.7 seconds, compared with 43.9 seconds for prescription drug ads. Nearly half of the prescription drug ads were more than one minute in length, compared with fewer than 1 percent of the OTC ads. Together, both ads occupied more than 8 percent of all commercial airtime that week.