“Ask your doctor if pharma ads are right for you.”

Prescription Drug TV Commercials

Prescription drug TV commercials have gone beyond weird. Like the one commercial where the couple is sitting in two separate claw foot bathtubs, outside, under a pergola of fragrant purple flowers – We all know what that feels like, right?

Or the one where the rugged construction project manager takes time away from building a house to talk to us about his constipation. Thanks, guy!

But a constant barrage of ads is part of our culture – what’s the big deal?

Maybe it’s because many of these commercials are just elaborate distractions.


Well, it’s not just that these are incredibly complex products with a myriad of potential side effects. It’s that you can’t even get them without that little piece of paper (or now an e-prescription) from a doctor. These doctors went to medical school to learn about what medications are safest and best for us. But the pharmaceutical industry has decided to circumvent the medical community and go directly to the consumers.

So what could go wrong? Surely it’s better for people to have all the information, right? The problem is that only so much information can be communicated in a 30 second spot on television, in between an ad for Ford Truck Month and a new kind of waffles.

Let’s use everyone’s favorite horoscope-y sounding drug company as an example – AstraZeneca. It was the year 2000, and the patent for their extremely lucrative drug Prilosec (for acid reflux) was expiring. In fact, Prilosec was the world’s largest selling prescription drug with sales of over $6 billion annually and accounted for 39% of AstraZeneca’s revenue. But the party was about to end. In 2001, their patent was going to expire (insert record scratch sound).

Prilosec is the brand name, but the generic name is “omeprazole”.  So, AstraZeneca introduced “esomperazole”.  Sound similar?  That’s because it’s almost identical.  There’s a slight molecular difference between the two, but multiple studies have shown absolutely no clinical difference.  

Nevertheless, AstraZeneca spent $500 million to advertise esomeprazole or Nexium as “the purple pill.” They recruited 1,300 sales reps to promote the purple pill to physicians in one of the most expensive ad campaigns ever undertaken by a prescription drug maker.  A few years later, Nexium was generating $5 billion in annual sales. And Prilosec, now available over-the-counter, cost only $30 a month.  Nexium was $200 a month.

The United States is one of the only two countries in the world that allows direct-to-consumer marketing of prescription drugs.

For years, the American Medical Association has been lobbying for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising, insisting it “inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.” The United States is one of the only two countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer marketing of prescription drugs (New Zealand being the other one). Think about that for a minute. There are almost 200 sovereign nations in the world.  And for some reason, our country (and the home of Lord of the Rings) are the only ones that allow drug companies to market complex prescription medicines on commercials that appear in between episodes of Teen Titans Go!  

A study in the British Medical Journal this year revealed the 25 most heavily advertised medications in the US were less likely than the currently prescribed medications to be safe, effective and affordable. That means that these heavily marketed drugs didn’t offer a significant improvement over the drugs that doctors are already prescribing.   

Let’s re-think the way we introduce medications to the masses. There are a litany of chronic medical problems to be sure, And there are effective prescription medications for those problems.  But in so many cases, there are cost-effective, evidence-based medications that can treat these issues.

Take Notice

Have you ever noticed how all those pharma commercials quickly list out the potential side effects and contraindications while flashing images of a dog jumping into a lake, or a dad throwing a curveball to his son? Perhaps it’s more than just patronizing to feature these Norman Rockwell-esque distractions during a release of critical information – It might actually be downright unkind.