5 Outrageous Claims from Pharmaceutical Advertising

Nancy thumbnailDoes the public actually believe the pharmaceutical ads they see on TV? Will a doctor change a treatment plan based on a new popular drug advertised on TV that everyone is talking about?

According to a 2004 FDA survey, the answer is yes. Doctors feel pressure from their patients to prescribe a brand name drug seen advertised. The survey also reported that more than 75% of the responses from 500 doctors indicated that their patients thought that the drug prescribed worked better than it did because of the ads they saw.

The fact is that more than 50 million people each year ask their doctors about new drugs they see advertised. In general, advertising can increase demand by at least 10 percent and the price by 5%. So it is no surprise that spending on pharmaceutical advertising in the United States has spiked dramatically: from $150 million in 1993 to $4.24 billion in 2005.

This impact on the public has always worried the FDA, formed in 1927, to protect the public from the outrageous claims made by the makers of the next miracle drug.

Consider some of these claims that may have prompted government regulation:

  • 1850: Throw aside all prejudice and buy and use the best pills ever offered to the public. They will always do good when a cathartic is required. And in no case will they do you harm.
  • 1909: Dr. B. of the Pasteur Institute, Paris, France inoculated a rabbit with human dandruff germs, and “in between five and six weeks,” says the official report of the Pasteur Institute “the rabbit was completely denuded, in fact it had become entirely bald. This experiment proves the dandruff is a contagious disease due to the presence of a microbic growth in the sebaceous glands of the scalp.
  • 1916: Those women who find that the hips are getting too large should see how the white cross electric vibrator reduces them. Lameness of any sort is caused by obstruction or imperfect circulation and the best way to treat it is to force blood through the sore muscle.

Compare these to some ads after regulation:

  • 1946: Ben Gay actually contains up to 2 ½ times more methylsalicylate and menthol—those famous pain-relieving agents known to every doctor—than five other widely offered rub-ins
  • 1976: Cool the Fever. Bufferin’s pain reliever not only starts going to those aches and pains twice as fast as plain aspirin, it also reduces the fever as effectively as any plain aspirin tablet.


Take a look at these ads. Do you know what is missing? There are no adverse effects mentioned at all! It wasn’t until 1985 that the FDA required drug advertisers list adverse reactions. Today, without including adverse reactions, an ad may end up an FDA “bad ad” or on Forbe’s worst ad-of-the-year list. See http://www.forbes.com/2010/02/02/drug-advertising-lipitor-lifestyle-health-pharmaceuticals-safety_slide.html

What do you think? Is more information, science, and data better? Or is the reality, as John Lennon once said, “The more I see, the less I know for sure.” Have pharmaceutical claims changed so much over the years? What’s so different about the unregulated claim made in 1917: I now hear clearly. You, too, can hear! And the Latisse regulated claim in 2010: Not enough lashes? Grow them! Longer, fuller, darker.

Whether you think regulation of pharmaceutical ads is government control or protection of the public from outrageous claims made by a modern-day medicine act, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” (Oscar Wilde)

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