Irresponsible Reminders: Ethical Aspects of Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising

By Barbera, Christopher La | Ethics & Medicine, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Irresponsible Reminders: Ethical Aspects of Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising


Barbera, Christopher La, Ethics & Medicine


Abstract

Prescription drug advertising has flourished in recent years; consequently, so has our consciousness of the availability and variety of prescription medications. But just as the direct-to-consumer advertising of prescriptions becomes ubiquitous in our media culture, so too do many of the dangers of manipulative marketing, dangers that enhance demand beyond necessity and pose hazards to consumers. This article provides a historical overview of the primary ethical problems posed by direct-to-consumer advertising of prescriptions, and points to one form of legally permissible advertisement, "reminder advertisements," as particularly prone to deceptive marketing. Three case studies (examining ads from Vioxx, Levitra, and Rozerem) demonstrate the potential for ethical problems specific to reminder ads. Recent changes in advertising have pointed to the industry's self-regulation, yet reminder advertisements for prescription drugs continue to be lawfully utilized. I argue that only by eliminating reminder advertisements and replacing them with full, product- claim advertisements will we have the prospect of ethical marketing of prescription drugs to consumers.

Introduction

While attending a conference in Manhattan in 2007, I had the rare luxury of staying at a four-star hotel overlooking Times Square. This was not an experience for the claustrophobic. I found, upon arrival, that my room was not much larger than a bedroom closet. However, my hotel room had one redeeming feature: the windows. The room boasted a spectacular, pleasantly distant view of the daunting tourist hub. From the horizon of glistening skyscrapers to the frenetic activity of Broadway, the view struck me with the wonder and the awe felt by a first-timer. However, one feature of this model city scene struck me as awry. Covering the entire first six stories of a neighboring building was a billboard advertisement, clear to both the north-facing occupants of the hotel and the wayward tourists crawling uptown, which featured a lone, giant beaver in front of a bright yellow backdrop. No product was displayed and no legible information was imparted, except a cryptic web address written in black italics: theymissyou.com. As I later discovered, the ad was not promoting some beaver-obsessed internet startup, nor was it the brainchild of some nature outreach organization looking to grab the ecological sentiment of city dwellers. The advertisement was for Rozerem, a prescription sleep aid.

This fact wouldn't have been so strange had I seen any relationship between the oversized beaver and the product being advertised. Any reference to the effect of the medication was noticeably absent; let alone any mention of the drug's chemistry or side effects. A strange coincidence occurred when, on the train ride home, I encountered three more theymissyou.com ads in the car where I was seated on the train ride home. They again featured the beaver, though this time paired with an actor dressed as Abraham Lincoln. The beaver and Honest Abe were seated side-by-side like father and son in an antique motorcycle with sidecar. I remember noticing that the weary city commuters on that rush-hour train looked dazed as they made their way through another day. My fellow riders seemed less perturbed by, or too overworked to observe the strangeness of, the theymissyou ads. As they drifted in and out of consciousness, they seemed to be hoping for nothing more than a good night's sleep.

The direct, strategic marketing of prescription medications to the public is a fairly recent phenomenon, but one that has become almost ubiquitous in the last decade. Still, it is not a method of advertising used by the industry worldwide: only two countries, the United States and New Zealand, currently permit drug companies to market directly and fully1 to consumers (CBC News, 2007). Yet, a lack of prevalence worldwide has not hindered the popularity of direct-to-consumer advertising here: in the U.

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