One Million DTC Ads That May Discourage Diet and Exercise

More than a million direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads for cholesterol-lowering drugs could have an unintended effect: persuading people that a healthy lifestyle doesn’t help. A new study from researchers at Cornell University analyzed the content of DTC ads for cholesterol-lowering prescription drugs from 1994 to 2007 and found that 80% of the advertising suggests that diet and exercise may not work. The remaining 20% of advertisements state that a healthy lifestyle is important and leave it at that.

Cholesterol-lowering drugs are the subject of more DTC ads than any other type of drugs, accounting for more than a thousand print ads and more than a million TV ads over the period studied. Let’s be clear. Just objectively studying the content of these ads was a huge task all by itself. The researchers are quick to point out that quantifying the impact of these messages is a separate exercise altogether. But given the volume and sophistication of such advertising directed at consumers, it’s a question that deserves attention.

The impact of DTC advertising has been a subject for lively health policy debates and and quite a bit of health communication research. DTC advertising has potential to empower people with relevant information and involve them in decision making about their health. It also has potential to minimize the value of a healthy lifestyle while promoting medication as a superior alternative.

The experience with smoking cessation advertising shows that this need not be so. Research has found that smokers exposed to ads for smoking cessation products were more likely to quit smoking and more likely to succeed, with or without the products. Analyses of other categories of DTC ads shows that the advertising often minimizes the value of a healthy lifestyle.

Cholesterol-lowering drugs have improved the health of many millions of people. DTC ads for them have potential to both help and hurt efforts to engage people in improving their health. Understanding that balance deserves our attention and further research.

For a less scholarly, more dramatic consideration of the subject, you can look to Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Side Effects, which puts DTC ads front and center in a psychological thriller. It’s hardly a flattering view.

Click here to access the study of DTC advertising for cholesterol-lowering drugs and here to read more about Side Effects.

Hungarian Television image © Takkk / Wikimedia

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