Drug promotions work like washing-powder ads
June 7-13 | New Scientist
DOES advertising drugs directly to patients provide valuable health information, as pharmaceutical companies claim? Or does it just make certain drugs seem attractive, even if they aren't necessarily the best choice for the person concerned? A study based on marketing theory suggests the latter - at least for antidepressants.
Advertisements tend to fit into one of two categories. With goods like washing powder, where there is little difference between rival products, advertising simply raises awareness of a particular product or brand. But when one product has a genuine advantage over its rivals - like superior acceleration in a sports car, for example - an ad can help consumers make better choices by pointing out that attribute.
Marketing theory says that each type of advertisement has a distinctive impact on a product's demand curve, which describes how sales of a product vary with price. To find out which category drug advertising falls into, Chad Meyerhoefer and Samuel Zuvekas, at the US government's Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in Rockville, Maryland, examined data on antidepressant ads and sales between 1996 and 2003. They found that antidepressant promotions skewed the demand curve in the same way as washing-powder ads (The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, vol 8, issue 2, article 4).
The US and New Zealand are the only two countries that allow prescription drugs to be promoted directly to patients. The researchers say that antidepressant advertising in those countries should be supplemented by more detailed health information.
But they also say that ads which simply raise awareness can be good for patients in some cases. Pharmaceutical companies point out that depression is under-treated in the US, so just mentioning the condition could be beneficial.