Comparative Claims in Advertising Make Drugs Seem Safer, More Effective

Posted 11 September 2014 | By Alexander Gaffney, RAC 

Comparative Claims in Advertising Make Drugs Seem Safer, More Effective

Using comparative claims in drug advertisements can make them more effective at persuading consumers that a drug is safer and more effective than the drug it’s being compared to, according to new research conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and published this month.

Writing in the journal Social Science & Medicine, FDA Social Science Analyst Amie O'Donaghue and colleagues with FDA's Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) and RTI International looked at findings from two FDA-sponsored studies comparing the effectiveness of different types of direct-to-consumer advertising.

The first of those studies involved 1,934 participants, who viewed fictitious ads for a fake osteoarthritis drug. Participants either viewed a print or video advertisement, and the advertisements either had no comparative claim or compared the drug's efficacy to a competitor product.

As O'Donaghue and colleagues explain in the study, "Participants who viewed print (but not video) ads with named competitors had greater efficacy and lower risk perceptions than participants who viewed unnamed competitor and non-comparative ads."

In the second study, participants who had either high cholesterol or high body mass were recruited to view a fictitious print or video advertisement depicting either no comparative claim or a comparison to a similar product.

Again, study participants were found to have a perception of greater efficacy for products compared to other drugs. Interestingly, however, unlike in the first experiment, the second study found that "named competitors in print ads resulted in higher risk perceptions than unnamed competitors."

But even despite this increase, O'Donaghue found video ads to be particularly effective at increasing both recall of the drug's benefits and minimizing a drug's potential risks.

"In video ads, participants who saw an indication comparison had greater benefit recall than participants who saw dosing or mechanism of action comparisons. In addition, visual depictions of the comparison decreased risk recall for video ads," she explained. "Overall, the results suggest that comparative claims in DTC ads could mislead consumers about a drug's efficacy and risk; therefore, caution should be used when presenting comparative claims in DTC ads."

According to O'Donaghue's study, consumers subject to comparative claims viewed a drug as both more effective (5.64 vs. 4.92 on a seven-point scale) and safer (3.98 vs 4.90, on a 1-7 scale where 7 was the most dangerous). This effect held across all groups in both studies, O'Donaghue and her colleagues found.

And for OPDP, the FDA drug advertising regulation division where O'Donaghue works, those findings could make for interesting policy discussions. The agency regularly sends out so-called "Notice of Violation" (NOV) letters indicating its opposition any advertisements or promotional activities which might cause consumers to view a product as either more effective or safer than its approved labeling indicates.

What remains to be seen is whether the study will impact policy and cause FDA to crack down on comparative claims, or whether this is simply a curiosity to be used by drug advertising professionals.



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