Drug Ads Don't Say Much, but Sell Big

Does a poster of a purple pill persuade you to pick up a phone and ask a doctor if it's right for you?

For a lot of Americans, it does. Studies show that despite often having no idea what a medication treats, consumers often seek out drugs as a result of ads.

(For the record, Nexium — "the purple pill" — is for acid-reflux disease.)

Though pharmaceutical advertising is closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (search), some find the direct-to-consumer campaigns irresponsible, saying they promote drugs people don't need. Others contend that the ads encourage consumer awareness and doctor-patient communication.

In one veiled television ad, a voice-over states: "It's always been our dream to run a bed and breakfast," while an elderly man pushes a wheelbarrow. Then another voice says, "Could Procrit be right for you? Ask your doctor."

The medication helps increase the body's red-blood-cell production and is meant for patients suffering from HIV, cancer or kidney disease — not that anyone would know that from the ad.

But these types of campaigns have people asking their doctors for pills by name.

"I have patients that come in that can sing the jingle for the product, but they don't know much more," said Dr. Michael Fleming, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (search). "It is very common now for a patient to come in for an appointment and say ‘I want to know about the pill I saw on television.'"

Pharmacist Barbara Morris of Escondido, Calif., said the direct-to-consumer ads are reprehensible and prey on people's desperation to feel better.

"When you are in pain," Morris said, "and you see a grandpa playing ball with the kids in the park, or playing with a cute dog, that's what you remember — the promise of relief — not that the drug may cause sudden internal bleeding or other dangerous side effects."

The FDA once required direct-to-consumer ads to include thorough information on a drug's possible side effects. When that proved too cumbersome and confusing, the FDA agreed to allow TV drug ads to simply mention major health risks and advise where to go for more information.

Advertisers argue that they drug campaigns are meant to increase brand recognition and consumer awareness.

"Pharmaceutical ads are not designed to get people to pick anything up off the shelf," said Terry Gallo, president of health communications company Euro RSCG Life Adrenaline. "All we want to do is get a dialogue going, for that conversation to take place, because it's up to the doctor to decide what they are going to prescribe."

More than three-quarters of American adults said they had seen or heard advertising for prescription medications in the past 12 months, according to a survey conducted last year by the National Consumers League (search).

A majority of those surveyed said they were motivated by the advertising to talk with their doctors about the medication either immediately or at their next appointment.

Even though the ads raise concerns about consumers pushing for drugs they don't need, some say there's nothing wrong with a curious patient.

"Critics attack the drug ads for provoking patients to ask their doctors for expensive drugs for which they may not have a medical need," Linda Golodner, president of the National Consumers League, said in a statement. "But if these ads are encouraging dialogue of any nature between doctors and their patients, this can hardly be a bad thing."

Flemming agreed and said it's good to see patients taking a proactive role in their own health.

"I'm happy to have patients involved in their health care," he said. "It gives me a chance to talk to them about what medication I want to use, why, and what I hope to treat."

Some consumers, such as Judith Lederman of Scarsdale, N.Y., say they're glad to leave the question of how to treat an illness to the medical professionals.

"I pay the doctor to recommend medications and to research their effects," Lederman said in an e-mail. "Otherwise, I would expect him to discount his hefty office visit fees."

The verdict remains mixed on the drug marketing, but pharmaceutical campaigns will likely continue to show such vague images as people running through a field on a sunny day to promote new medications.

While Flemming said some physicians feel their patients push too strongly to convince them to prescribe certain drugs, he knows it's ultimately his call.

When the prescription pad comes out, he said, "I make the decision."