A new study by officials from the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) raises questions about the balance of benefit and risk information in mobile ads for prescription drugs.
As with other mediums for drug advertising, including print, television, web and social media, the study finds that mobile ads tend to present the benefits of drugs more prominently than their risks.
"This echoes prior research across a broad range of marketing platforms and raises concerns about whether fair balance requirements are being met in the mobile marketing of prescription drugs," the authors write.
To conduct the study, the authors looked at 51 mobile communications, and the landing pages they linked to, that ran on popular apps and websites for Android and iOS mobile devices between 2012 and 2014.
The ads consisted of three types: product claims communications (21/51), reminder communications (11/51) and help-seeking communications (19/51). Product claims communications contain information about a drug, including its name, benefits and risks, reminder communications only mention a drug's name ("Ask your doctor about … ") and help-seeking communications discuss a medical condition without mentioning a specific product.
While 90% of the ads that featured product claims presented both benefit and risk information, almost all presented the benefits before the risks, and nearly half of those (47%) used a larger font for the benefits.
And while only a quarter of product claims required scrolling to see all the benefits of a drug, all but one required scrolling to see the full risk information. The authors also found a similar trend for landing pages, noting that only 8% required scrolling to see the benefit information compared to 51% that did to see all the risks.
"It may be that the apparent difference in scrolling needed is because there is often more information in the risk section of approved labeling than in the indication section. Regardless, if risk information is available only through scrolling or a link, consumers may be less likely to access it and may miss important information," the authors write.
The authors also observed a higher-than-expected number of reminder ads in mobile communications than seen with other ad mediums.
"Surprisingly, 22% of mobile communications were reminder communications, a higher proportion than expected given the scarcity of reminders overall," they write, noting that reminder ads may be better suited to mobile devices as they do not have to present as much information in a limited space.
However, the authors suggest that this may in part be due to drugmakers' uncertainty about presenting a fair balance of information in a mobile ad, and instead opting to steer consumers to a landing page where they are more comfortable presenting that information.
The authors also express concern that some help-seeking and reminder mobile communications linked to websites didn't present accompanying risk information. "Research has shown that consumers confuse disease information with branded prescription drug information when the two are presented together or associated by link," they write, noting that FDA has warned companies for similar issues in the past.