Emory Report
February 28, 2005
Volume 57, Number 21


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February 28, 2005
SOM study measures effects of TV drug advertising

BY Alicia sands lurry

A School of Medicine study led and authored by Erica Brownfield, assistant professor of medicine, reveals that increased advertising by pharmaceutical companies is disproportionately focused on women and older viewers.

The study, published in the November/December issue of the Journal of Health Communications, also 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.

To date, Brownfield said no study has ever quantified the amount of direct-to-consumer drug advertising on television, adding that because the average American likely is exposed to some 30 hours of direct-to-consumer advertisements each year, many 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 and [see] how many direct-to-consumer advertisements there were for prescription and the over-the-counter drugs," said Brownfield, who also is an internist at Grady Hospital. "We looked at all of the commercials, and we found that, if you look at all direct-to-consumer drug advertising, the number, amount and percentage of commercial time is pretty high."

Conducted for one week in the summer of 2001, the study 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. During the sample week, direct-to-consumer ads for prescription and OTC drugs most commonly were aired during mid-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.

"When you think about who watches soap operas and news programs," Brownfield said, "you realize it's usually women, who are the major health care 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 OTC drugs and 428 advertisements for prescription drugs, representing 4.8 percent and 2.3 percent of all ads, respectively.

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 prescription drug ads were more than a minute in length, compared with fewer than 1 percent of OTC ads. Together, both ads occupied more than 8 percent of all commercial airtime that week.

The team also found that an average television viewer who only watched the three networks studied would have been exposed to nearly 40 minutes of direct-to-consumer OTC and prescription advertising that week, an average of more than five-and-a-half minutes of drug ads per day.

"Consumers are likely to receive an increasing proportion of their information about conditions and treatment from television ads with an uncertain impact on the demand for advertised medications, healthcare spending, and health outcomes," the article concludes. "Further research is needed to define the true scope and impact of direct-to-consumer advertising."

In addition to Brownfield, other study authors include Jay Bernhardt, assistant professor of behavioral science and health education in the Rollins School of Public Health; Mark Williams, professor of medicine and hospitalist; Ruth Parker, associate professor of medicine; and Jennifer Phan, hospitalist at Piedmont Hospital. The authors received no funding for the study.