Pharmaceutical Advertising Gets Us to Medicate and Engage in Healthy Lifestyles

Direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising pointing out family health risks can positively influence us to try new medications and lead a healthier lifestyle.

That was one result of a study by researchers with the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Georgia. Researchers Joseph N. Cappella, Ph.D., and Caryn Lerman, Ph.D., both from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, and Minsun Shim, Ph.D., with the University of Georgia’s Department of Speech Communication, analyzed the responses of 400 adults who looked at advertisements for different pharmaceuticals in an effort to address several questions:

  • What effects do Direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical advertisements have when familial risk cues are included? Do they encourage a path to a healthy lifestyle? Do they encourage someone to obtain the medication? Do both of the aforementioned actions happen? Neither?
  • Do familial risk advertisements affect one’s outlook for their health? Do we become fatalistic, as in “I am going to get this disease no matter what.”

The results of the trio’s research are reported in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research, which is published by the National Communication Association. The research may have impact on how pharmaceutical advertising campaigns are developed.

Familial risk in DTC pharmaceutical advertising ties the chances of getting a disease or medical condition to one‘s family history. Marketing for the cholesterol fighting drug Vytorin does this by citing two sources of cholesterol, “food and family.”

The researchers took advertisements for three pharmaceutical medications; Vytorin for high cholesterol, Actonel for osteoporosis, and Bayer for heart disease. Participants in the control segment viewed manipulated versions of the advertisements; for example, the Vytorin copy was changed from “food and family” to “food and inactivity.”

Participants who viewed the un-altered advertisements with familial risk cues did not exhibit fatalistic attitude, but they rather reported a stronger intention to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors than those who viewed ads without those cues. However, there was no interaction effect between exposure to familial risk cues in the ads and family history.

“In a way, we do not believe we are our like our parents in that the respondents felt they can overcome family risks to health issues by both pursuing a healthy lifestyle and investigating use of the advertised medications,” said Dr. Shim. 

Dr. Shim said the trio’s research suggested that the use of terminology such as gene causes rather than family risk may be more effective for medication promotion in DTC pharmaceutical marketing campaigns. “From the public health perspective, however, consideration should also be given to enhancing the willingness of consumers to engage in healthy lifestyles when using genetic or familial risk appeals in DTC ads. Additionally, more research is needed to help us understand the relationship between willingness to exercise and to seek medical assistance to improve one’s health. Lastly, ethical issues associated with this are significant. There remains the possibility that someone may seek medications even though there is no family health risk in their personal background.”

The full study can be obtained by contacting the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

About the National Communication Association
The National Communication Association advances communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry. The NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, the NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems. NCA is the largest national organization to promote communication scholarship and education. A non-profit organization, NCA has over 8,000 educators, practitioners, and students who work and reside in every state and more than 20 countries.