Pros and Cons of DTC Drug Ads


What may seem obvious to you can be wrong. I was reminded of that recently when I had dinner with a friend who reads my blog. (Drug Ads Disservice to Patients and Doctors) We both agreed that direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug ads didn’t seem effective. We marveled that the pharmaceutical companies were pouring so much money into these ads that we didn’t think were a good investment of their advertising dollars.

Then my friend did some research and pointed me to a web site called They have a running debate format that included this issue in a recent survey. Some strong arguments were made, both Pro and Con, but the most startling discovery was that “For every $1 spent on DTC ads, sales of prescription drugs rose by $4.20.”

If that statement is even close to accurate we’d all better brace ourselves for more of these DTC ads in the future! In fact, Kantar Media, a firm that tracks multimedia advertising, says 771,368 such ads were shown in 2016, the last full year for which data is available. That was a 65% increase over 2012 figures.

Most of us probably react negatively to the endless list of side effects the FDA mandates these ads mention. But an unexpected reaction to these is enhanced credibility. Those who have the disease mentioned tend to think the heavy dose of negative information increases the perceived honesty of the ads.

Here is a sample of the arguments made, both Pro and Con, for DTC drug ads:

Pros for DTC Drug Ads

  • 64% of physicians surveyed believe ads encourage patients to contact a doctor
  • Lower income/education patients were more likely to see a doctor
  • 73% of physicians thought patients asked good questions because of the ads
  • 77% of people believe the ads increase awareness of new drugs
  • 81% of physicians thought ads had a positive impact on patient compliance
  • 88% of physicians said patients ask about drugs for conditions they have
  • 52% of physicians agree the ads help remove stigma associated with diseases
  • 44% of patients believe the ads help educate them about drugs and disease
  • DTC ads protect free speech of drug companies


Cons for DTC Drug Ads

  • 63% of physicians believe DTC drug ads misinform patients
  • 74% of physicians believe the ads overemphasized the benefits of the drugs
  • 84% of regulatory letters sent by the FDA were for minimizing risks and /or exaggerating effectiveness of drugs.
  • 68% of physicians agree that drugs are marketed before safety profiles are known
  • 43% of consumers believe drugs had to be 100% safe before being advertised
  • DTC ads create the idea that normal conditions are “bad.”
  • 81% of physicians say the ads promote drug overutilization
  • 80% of physicians say drug ads weaken doctor-patient relationships.
  • 78% of physicians believe drug ads increase healthcare costs.
  • 57% of U.S. adults support removing prescription drug ads from TV.


Notice that roughly the same percentage of doctors believe drug ads encourage patients to contact a doctor – but misinform the patients! Likewise, about the same percentage believe drugs ads increase awareness of new drugs – but overemphasize the benefits of those drugs.

Perhaps the strongest benefit for patients is that more patients seek medical care as a result of these ads. Perhaps the most adverse impact of these ads is that they weaken the doctor-patient relationship.

The United States and New Zealand are the only countries that permit DTC prescription drug ads. All other countries ban all forms of DTC prescription drug ads except Canada, which allows limited forms of reminder ads. The U.S. accounts for 42% of global prescription drug use even though our population is only 5% of the world. This certainly reflects differences in standard of living and the structure of our reimbursement system, but may also be influenced by DTC drug ads.  The World Health Organization (WHO) stated in 2000, “Advertisements to the general public should . . . not generally be permitted for prescription drugs,” and in 2007 “made a unanimous recommendation to prohibit direct-to-consumer advertising.”

Clearly most of the world believes these DTC prescription drug ads are a bad idea. But as long as drug companies are getting a return on investment of $4.20 for every dollar spent we’re going to see more of these ads, unless the government bans them.

Where do you stand? Are these DTC drug ads a good thing or a bad thing? Let me know what you believe.

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