A scientific approach to irrational consumer choices

GOOD MORNING: The FDA is taking a scientific approach to evaluating direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising, focusing on measuring consumer perceptions of the information presented in ads. Since when is consumer behavior ever scientific?

According to Science Direct “participants who saw exaggerated images (in DTC ads) were more likely than those who saw no image or accurate images to overestimate efficacy. Presenting quantitative information increased participants’ gist and verbatim recall of drug efficacy. In some cases, it led participants to have more accurate perceptions of the drug’s efficacy even in the presence of exaggerated images. Higher numeracy was associated with better gist and verbatim recall.”

So, are we supposed to believe that better images in DTC ads lead to patients asking for an Rx? The FDA wrote, “the researchers concluded that drug companies who create drug advertisements, as well as regulators who are responsible for reviewing promotional material, should pay special attention to ensuring that images accurately reflect drug efficacy.” Uh…no

Ad recall is essential for CPGs, but for prescription drugs, the question that’s missing is “what action did it lead to? Subsequent research has indicated that people go online to learn more about an advertised drug. Virtually nobody will run to their doctor to ask about a drug they saw on TV without doing research first.

A review, authored by researchers at RTI International and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), looked at 38 studies published between 1982 and 2017 that examined outcomes reported by patients, prescribers, or both regarding their experience with DTC advertising in the US and New Zealand.

The authors found that 22 of the studies reported information-seeking behavior following exposure to DTC advertising. Some of these studies associated information seeking more strongly with patients with chronic conditions and those with a more positive view of DTC advertising.

Is this true for all advertised drugs? No. Some medications to treat minor health problems may not require in-depth research, but others lead to online health-seeking behavior.

What I’m seeing is an increase in the use of social media for online health-seeking. What people seem to be interested in are drug side effects vs. efficacy. College-educated online health seekers understand a “trade-off” between drug side effects and effectiveness, but Millenials want to know more about potential treatments.

If the FDA wants to study DTC ads, they need to stop focusing on aspects like “images” and instead ask people what they would do next after seeing an ad. More than 85% go online for more information, and while drug websites are part of that journey, they are not the deciding factor because most pharma websites read like medical journals and don’t answer online health seekers’ questions.

Consumers often don’t make rational choices when it comes to products, including prescription drugs. It involves many steps, and DTC marketers should develop a decision tree analysis of what their audience does due to seeing one of their ads.