Originally created 11/17/99

Consumers confused by talk of side effects

NEW ORLEANS -- You've seen the TV commercials for drugs that promise to relieve allergies, banish migraines, grow back your hair, prevent heart attacks, relieve herpes.

Then comes the stern voice droning on about possible side effects, from annoying diarrhea to startlingly dire problems like birth defects, addiction, liver failure, heart damage.

Average consumers watch nine TV commercials every day for prescription drugs, and new advertising research says they're not happy about it.

"People really dislike these ads," Beth Miller of the advertising agency Campbell Mithun Esty told a meeting of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists.

Consumers used words like "trite," "boring" and "goofy" to describe some ads, telling Miller they were tired of healthy-looking "patients" wandering on the beach or windsurfing through wheatfields to sell medication.

But Miller mostly blames all that negative side-effect information. For fairness, the Food and Drug Administration requires the commercials to disclose potential risks of prescription drugs, so vulnerable patients aren't deluded into hoping for miracle cures.

"All of these warnings are confusing consumers," said Miller, who wants prescription ads to become "a little less like sitting in a classroom and getting lectured."

"We don't want consumers saying, 'Look at all that bad stuff -- I'm going to go get some ginkgo and hope for the best,"' instead of taking an effective prescription, she added.

Ads do sell lots of drugs or companies wouldn't buy them, Miller acknowledged.

In the first half of 1999 alone, companies spent $905 million on direct-to-consumer prescription drug ads, a 43 percent increase over the same period last year, according to the industry research company IMS Health.

But Miller contends the ads generate far less recognition than all that money should have bought. Just a third of consumers accurately remembered what an advertised prescription treats, concluded her survey of 1,000 consumers and follow-ups with focus groups.

In contrast, she found 80 percent consumer awareness from ads for nonprescription drugs -- shorter, snappier ads that do not have to include sobering side-effect warnings.

Some $75 million in ads for prescription Zyrtec that showed smiling allergy sufferers scaling mountain peaks struck a chord with only 38 percent of consumers, Miller said. The cholesterol drug Pravachol, with $60 million in ads, generated just 27 percent consumer awareness. Less than one in four consumers recalled the heartburn drug Prilosec despite $50 million in ads.

She did find some big successes: Sixty percent of consumers knew Claritin, the most-advertised drug, treats allergies. Eighty percent recognized the anti-impotence pill Viagra.

Some doctors and pharmacists reacted skeptically. "The ads have to give balanced information," a University of Michigan pharmacist told Miller.

And lots of patients demand that their doctors prescribe the latest drug seen on TV. A University of Mississippi survey of 200 doctors, to be presented later this week at the pharmaceutical meeting, found that five patients a week ask the physicians for an advertised drug -- and doctors prescribe it 30 percent of the time. Yet less than half the doctors think information in the ads is mostly accurate.

But some drug makers are considering turning to commercials that merely urge disease sufferers to "ask your doctor about the latest treatment" or call a drug company for information, said Ron Corey of Pharmacia & UpJohn. If a drug's benefits aren't touted in ads, side effects don't have to be listed.

Indeed, a new Pfizer Inc. commercial shows couples dancing romantically and simply says, "Ask your doctor about Viagra." "It's just less difficult to do this way," Miller said.


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