Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 20-May-2005, Vol 118 No 1215
Advertising of medicines on New Zealand television
Pauline Norris, Lucy Nelson, Koal Lin Ling, Lucy Skellett, Joyce Hoo, Cecilia Va’ai, Amber Gates
Consumers have a wide range of medicines available to them in supermarkets, health food and other stores, and over the counter in pharmacies. Many of these medicines are advertised widely in print and broadcast media.
In New Zealand, prescription-only medicines are also advertised to the public. These advertisements attempt to influence consumers’ choices about medicines. This can have significant consequences for individual and public health, as medicines can potentially either harm or improve health.1,2
An advertised medicine may be inappropriate for a particular person for several reasons, including:
If advertising leads consumers to use inappropriate medicines, to use them inappropriately, or to misdiagnose health problems (and therefore delay treatment for serious problems), this can lead to significant health problems. An additional concern is medicalisation—the tendency to regard medicines as solutions for everyday problems associated with normal life processes.3,4
Considerable research has been done on the advertising and promotion of medicines, and its impact on prescribers.5 Concerns have been raised about the quality of information contained in medicines advertisements, and the impact of these on prescribing practice. Less research has been done on the impact of advertising of medicines to the public, and there is little data available on the extent of consumers’ exposure to medicines advertising.
The advertising of prescription medicines to the public has caused considerable debate in New Zealand.6,7,8 New Zealand and the United States (US) are the only two developed countries that allow such advertising of prescription-only medicines. There is evidence that the US public is less becoming sympathetic to direct to consumer advertising.9
Descriptive studies overseas have looked at the educational value of direct to consumer advertisements for prescription products or the appeals made in these advertisements.10–14 These studies are heavily focused on print advertisements. Research has also been done on consumers’ reports of their exposure to and recall of advertisements, and their views about direct to consumer advertising.15–18 There is a small body of evidence of the impact of these advertisements, although this is a difficult topic to research.19–22
As well as advertisements for prescription-only medicines, New Zealand consumers are exposed to a great deal of advertising of non-prescription medicines, and (to our knowledge) there is no published research on the impact of this. There have been no other published studies on the extent of advertising of both prescription and non-prescription drugs to consumers. The one exception we could find is Hardon’s study which included the extent of radio advertising of medicines in the Phillipines.23
In this study, we measured the frequency and distribution of advertisements for medicines on New Zealand television over a 1-year period.
A stratified random sample of 577.5 hours (35 days) of television was video-recorded during the period 15 November 2001 to 11 December 2002. Seven days (6:30am to 11pm) of each free-to-air national TV channel (TV1, TV2, TV3, TV4, Prime) were recorded.
Taping started on a randomly selected date in November 2001 (Thursday 15 November), and one day of each channel was recorded in turn. This sequence was repeated every 64 days, ensuring that each time a different day of the week was recorded for each channel. If any taping was missed because of technological problems or human error, the same channel was recorded at the same time the following week. There were very few such problems, but the final day of TV1 programming (Wednesday 4 December) was missed, so it was replaced with TV1 Wednesday 11 December programming.
We defined medicines more broadly than the legal definition of registered medicines. We included prescription medicines, pharmacy medicines, herbal medicines, homeopathic medicines, and dietary supplements. We considered medicines to be ‘products intended for humans, that claimed to treat health problems’.
We distinguished medicines from food and drinks on the basis that a medicine’s primary purpose is therapeutic whereas the primary purpose of a food or drink was to satisfy hunger or thirst. Thus we classified Lemsip (a lemon drink containing paracetamol and phenylephrine) and Fastburner (a meal replacement drink) as medicines since their primary purpose is to treat colds or to reduce weight respectively, while we did not classify V (an energy drink including Caffeine and Guarana) and mineral waters (with additives such as vitamins) as medicines.
We distinguished medicines from cosmetics by defining medicines as products advertised for:
On the other hand, we defined moisturisers, under-arm deodorants, foot deodorants, and other topical products for dry or sensitive skin as cosmetics—and hence excluded them from the study.
A standard form for reporting medicines advertisements was developed. Apart from PN, all tapes were watched the authors and those listed in the Acknowledgements, and the forms were completed whenever an advertisement for a medicine was identified.
The date, time, channel, wording, and a description of the visual aspects of the advertisement were recorded. Products were classified according the New Ethicals Catalogue,24 the MedSafe website (www.medsafe.govt.nz) and by discussion amongst group members (for alternative medicines and dietary supplements). Where it was unclear what products were, Google searches (www.google.com) were done to find manufacturers’ or sellers’ websites which might give active ingredients.
To assess the reliability of the recording process, two hours of each person’s viewing were randomly selected and reviewed independently by PN. Significant under-reporting was identified in one person’s recording, while no problems were identified in any other. All of this person’s viewing (49.5 hours) was then repeated by PN.
The extent and distribution of advertisements were analysed using Microsoft Excel software.
During the 35 days of television, we found 340 advertisements for medicines. On average, this was 0.59 advertisements per hour, or 1 advertisement per 102 minutes. Sixty-four different medicines were advertised (this includes 3 formulations each, of Nurofen and Panadol).
Of the 64 products advertised, 12 were prescription-only medicines, 2 were pharmacist-only medicines, and 17 were pharmacy-only medicines; the remainder were 33 products available for general sale. Of these, we classified 6 as dietary supplements (mostly vitamins) and 4 as alternative medicines (such as herbal or homeopathic products).
The prescription-only products advertised during the study period were: Viagra (sildenafil, for erectile dysfunction), Flixotide (flucticasone, for asthma), Propecia (finasteride, for baldness), Xenical (orlistat, for obesity), Zyban (bupropion, for smoking cessation), Vioxx (rofecoxib, an anti-inflammatory), Losec (omeprazole, a proton pump inhibitor for gastric problems such as reflux), Reductil (subutramine, for obesity), Twinrix (vaccine for Hepatitis A and B), Detrusitol (tolterodine, for over-active bladder), Somac (pantoprazole, a proton pump inhibitor for gastric problems such as reflux), and Symbicort (budesonide and eformoterol, for asthma).
Most advertisements were for products that were available outside of pharmacies (Figure 1). Advertisements for prescription-only products made up 17.9% of advertisements.
Figure 1: Number of advertisements by drug type
The most commonly advertised products were: Comprehensive Formula (a vitamin and mineral supplement sold in combination with fitness equipment ‘Abslide’) Nature Bee Pollen (a dietary supplement containing ‘potentiated’ bee pollen), Fastburner (a meal replacement formula for weight loss), Nicobrevin (a nicotine-free anti-smoking aid), Panadol (paracetamol), Propecia (finasteride), Sensodyne (a toothpaste to treat sensitive teeth), and Buccaline Berna (prophylaxis for common cold). Each of these products was advertised between 10 and 35 times during our viewing period.
The Prime TV channel showed a significantly lower number of advertisements than the other channels (Poisson, p<0.001). Prime had 19 medicines advertisements over the period (almost all of which were on Wednesday), while the other four channels showed between 70 and 90 (average 80.25).
More medicine advertisements were shown on Mondays (62), Wednesdays (61), and Sundays (56) than on other days of the week (36–45), but there appears to be no clear pattern between channels.
The channels varied in the kind of advertisements they screened (comparing all ‘general sale products, pharmacy, and pharmacist-only products’ with ‘prescription only products’ (chi-squared=87.7, df=8, p<0.001). On each of the channels more than a quarter of advertisements were for general-sale medicines (Table 1). Apart from that category, the most common categories in each channel were: prescription-only products on TV1, pharmacy-only products and dietary supplements on TV2, prescription-only products on TV3, dietary supplements on TV4, and pharmacy-only products on Prime TV.
Advertisements were concentrated in different times of day. Twenty-one percent of advertisements were in the morning (6:30am–12noon). Almost half of all advertisements (46%) were in the afternoon (12noon–6pm), while 33% were in the evening (6pm–11pm). Thus, in the peak advertising time, afternoons, there were 0.74 medicines advertisements per hour, or 1 advertisement per 81 minutes.
Few advertisements for prescription medicines were shown in the morning (3%); more were shown in the afternoon (51%) and evening (46%). There were more advertisements for prescription-only medicines per hour in the evening (0.16 per hour, or 1 advertisement per 375 minutes) that at other times of the day.
Table 1. Number and (percentage) of advertisements for types of product on each TV channel
Pres=Prescription; P’cist= Pharmacist; Pharm=Pharmacy; Gen=General; Altern=Alternative; Diet suppl=Dietary supplement.
Advertisements for medicines were found in a very wide range of programmes. Fewer advertisements were found amongst children’s programmes. Ten advertisements (for Robitusson [a cough mixture], Panadol [paracetamol], Nature Bee Pollen, Claramax [an antihistamine for hayfever], and a children’s vitamin formulation were found in programmes that seemed to be directly targeted at children.
We found more than six advertisements in the following programmes (it should be noted that some of these have daily episodes and so do not necessarily have a high hourly rate of advertising): Athletics coverage (from the Commonwealth games), Home and Away (Australian soap opera), Infomercials, News, Oprah (talk show), Shortland Street (New Zealand soap opera), The Young and the Restless (US soap opera).
Advertisements for prescription medicines were also found in a wide range of programmes. Twenty-nine programmes (news broadcasts, soap operas, movies, comedies, documentaries, a fishing programme, and a cooking programme) included one advertisement for a prescription medicine. Those which included more than one prescription medicine advertisement included reality TV shows, dramas, soap operas, comedies, and documentaries. Eleven advertisements for prescription drugs were found during sports coverage.
Although we attempted to standardise reporting and ensure inter-rater reliability, some problems may still exist. Special events occurring during the study period may also potentially influence the results. The study included such a large sample of television, which allowed us to detect the significant variation between the extent of medicines advertising between channels and between days of the week. Any future attempts to monitor the extent of medicines advertising must take this variation into account. There also appeared to be seasonal variation in types of products advertised, but we were able to minimise this by studying a whole year’s television.
We identified a large number of medicines advertisements. While viewers on average would be exposed to less than one medicine’s advertisement per hour, those who watch particular channels at peak-viewing time may be exposed to considerably more advertisements. In addition, there are medicines advertisements on radio and in print media, which increase the level of consumers’ exposure to advertising.
We found a variety of different forms of medicines advertising. Programmes were sometimes sponsored by medicines’ manufacturers (eg Propecia sponsored a rally driving event during our study period). Advertisements for these programmes then also contain the product name. A pharmacy marketing group also produces a ‘Family Health Diary’, which, while ostensibly educating consumers about common health problems, usually advertises several medicines.
Advertisements were frequently repeated. For example, in one 8-hour period on TV4 there were eight advertisements for Nicobrevin and four advertisements for Berocca. Some products had two or three different advertisements that they repeated in sequence. Studies that assess the impact of advertising on consumers must take account of this repetition: viewers may often be exposed to several advertisements for one product during one viewing session. People who watch particular types of programmes may also be exposed to higher levels of medicine advertising. For instance, there appears to be a high level of advertising of prescription medicines during sports coverage. Indeed, this is likely to be part of a targeting strategy by manufacturers and advertisers.
This study cannot determine the impact of medicines advertisements on consumer behaviour. Previous studies on advertisements for prescription medicines have strongly suggested that advertisements have a powerful effect on consumers. Most research has focused on prescription-only medicines. Everett found that, when faced with a hypothetical situation, about one-third of his respondents said they would ask their doctor for a medicine they saw advertised.19
In Bell, Wilkes, and Kravitz’s study, 15% of people said they would consider terminating their relationship with their doctor if they refused their request for an advertised drug.20 And, in another study, 32% of consumers who had seen a DTC advertisement had talked to their doctor about an advertised medicine. Twenty-six percent had asked for a prescription for the advertised medicine; and of these, 71% received the prescription.16
Mintzies et al, in study of patient visits to primary care physicians, found that doctors were ambivalent about the choice of treatment they gave in 40% of cases, and about 50% of cases where the patient had requested an advertised drug.22 Using a quasi-experimental, interrupted time-series research design, Basara found a significant increase in the number of new prescriptions for a product during and after it was advertised direct to consumers.25 In a New Zealand survey, around 10% of consumers reported that an advertisement had prompted them to ask for a prescription-only medicine. Most of these had received the medicine they asked for.8
There are fewer studies looking at the effect of advertising on non-prescription medicines on consumers. In New Zealand, pharmacists have reported that consumers request pharmacist-only medicines after seeing advertisements for them.26
In summary, further research should be undertaken on the whole range of medicines advertisements directed at consumers, their impact on consumer behaviour, and their public health consequences. This should include examining the health-related claims made in advertisements, whether those advertisements meet regulatory requirements and guidelines, and how the advertisements are evaluated by consumers.
Of special mention, while our study focused on medicines, we also noticed that health claims were made for a range of non-medicine products: such as magnetic underlays for beds. We suggest that these health claims should be subject to similar regulations as those made in medicines advertisements.
Author information: Pauline Norris, Senior Lecturer and Leader: Clinical/Pharmacy Practice Research; Lucy Nelson, Exchange student; Koal Lin Ling, 4th year student; Lucy Skellett, 4th year student; Joyce Hoo, 4th year student; Cecilia Va’ai, 4th year student; Amber Gates, 4th year student, School of Pharmacy, University of Otago, Dunedin
Acknowledgements: Karen Morris, Emily Toner, and Nicola Schumacher also watched some of the television coverage. University of Otago funded the project. The University of Nottingham School of Pharmacy (UK) arranged the exchange programme through which Nicola Schumacher and Lucy Nelson became involved in the project.
Correspondence: Pauline Norris, School of Pharmacy, University of Otago, PO Box 913, Dunedin. Fax: (03) 479 7034; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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