Drug companies used to employ armies of sales representatives who traveled the country to convince doctors to prescribe lucrative prescription medications. Over the last decade, though, most firms have been laying off drug reps to save money. Many doctors are too busy to spend time listening to the sales pitch.

Instead, the pharmaceutical industry has turned to television. Since the 1990s, prescription drug advertising has become widespread. You can’t watch the evening news without seeing commercials for drugs to treat arthritis, erectile dysfunction, atrial fibrillation (A-fib), diabetic nerve pain, psoriasis, heartburn, COPD and low-T (testosterone).

Everyone assumes that these ads are aimed at patients. That’s why they are called “direct to consumer” (DTC) commercials. But a drug industry insider confided to us that shortly after airing a new commercial, prescription sales for that medicine skyrocket. This happens too quickly for many patients to make an appointment to see the doctor and request the medication.

The assumption this executive made was that the commercials are having an important impact on prescribers. Even though such commercials are incredibly expensive, they may be more cost effective than a large pharmaceutical sales force.

Although they may respond to these messages by writing prescriptions, doctors are ambivalent about DTC advertising. An FDA survey of physicians conducted last year found that nearly two-thirds of them believe DTC ads misinform patients and three-fourths think that the commercials overemphasize the benefits and downplay the risks of the featured products. At the same time, almost two-thirds agreed that the televised messages could prompt patients to seek medical advice.

Most viewers really dislike these commercials, though. Here is just one comment:

“The 24/7 bombardment with prescription drug ads on television makes me want to haul the TV to the landfill. The motive behind these ads has nothing to do with human wellbeing. It has everything to do with ca$h in the pockets of the prescription drug overlords. I think scare tactics and fear-mongering to sell medicine is bad policy.

“They often say, ‘Ask your doctor.’ Can’t people think for themselves any more? Or must they run to the doctor daily to be told what to think and what to do? I take no prescription drugs and scary ads don’t worry me.”

Actually, the side effects of many drugs that are advertised should worry people. The FDA requires the manufacturers to list serious adverse reactions. It’s not unusual for a voice-over to include disability or death in the long list of side effects, though you might not notice it.

Take the compelling Celebrex commercial, for example. A woman watching her friends in the water swims out to them and plays with a lovely dog while the announcer intones that the drug “may increase the chance of heart attack or stroke, which can lead to death.” The litany of serious skin reactions, bleeding and life-threatening ulcers is recited against an idyllic background.

DTC advertising is often defended as a way of informing the public about medical conditions and effective treatments. As compelling as the ads may be, however, they are not the best way to learn about the benefits and risks of potential therapies.

Get The Graedons' Favorite Home Remedies Health Guide for FREE

Join our daily email newsletter with breaking health news, prescription drug information, home remedies AND you'll get a copy of our brand new full-length health guide — for FREE!

  1. Cole

    DTC advertising is an absolute insult, particularly when the side effects are noted. If you have to TELL your doctor about a product, what kind of doctor are you seeing?

  2. DJC

    DTC commercials are dangerous. Why would anyone in their right mind take these drugs unless it was a last resort effort to save their life. The entire concept is misleading by design. Present day advertising and marketing should be defined as: “THE ART OF DECEPTION”

  3. Donnie

    When I hear the side-effects mentioned in the drug ads, it scares the dickens out of me, because they are so risky. If the harm outweighs the benefits, why take them. Some of them can cause suicide thoughts and actions. Makes me wonder if the many mass killings are committed by people who are taking those dangerous drugs.

  4. HMJ

    I saw the woman who is head of the FDA say plainly “Don’t take any medication that is advertised on tv.” Why doesn’t she do more to stop the ads?

  5. mahakavi

    In the last 20 years or so the drug companies pushed Congress to goad FDA into permitting DTC commercials. FDA succumbed to political pressure. Surely there are gullible consumers who after viewing a drug commercial call their physician to prescribe that drug for them over the phone to the pharmacy. The physicians are also at fault—when the patient asks for it they yield and prescribe without trying to discourage the patient. They think “who am I to control the patient?”.
    In other cases the doctors open up their prescription pad the moment they measure the BP of the patient without thinking to measure again or ask to patient to measure at home for a few days. In most cases the drugs do their job and the side effects affect only a small percentage. It suits the medical industry in general to push drug sales by any means.
    As one gets older one faces ailments and it is inevitable that you resort to taking drugs for the “unknown and poorly defined future risks”. It appears drugs are a necessary evil. You can’t live without them and you can’t live with them either.

  6. annette d

    Is there a holistic way to ease nerve pain when one is unable to take even low dose pain/nerve pain medicine? Please advise.
    I really enjoy your website and learn a lot from it. I make sure to pass it along as well.
    Thank you,
    Annette D, RN
    People’s Pharmacy response: Alpha-Lipoic Acid and Benfotiamine may sometimes be helpful for nerve pain: http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2013/04/29/supplements-to-ease-nerve-pain/

  7. Grace

    We mute all pharma commercials and specialized health treatment center commercials. The side effects of the drugs are so unpleasant to listen to and we wonder if the disease/ailment focus can create a nocebo effect.

  8. barb

    I have complained to every network broadcast TV station about the irritating drug ads for years to no avail….apparently I am the only one who detests this method of selling prescription medicine, since it continues. I have dropped subscriptions to magazines who allow 4 page drug ads in their pages. Advertising drugs does nothing but add to the already exorbitant costs of prescription medicine, and people have no business deciding what drug to take based on an ad in a magazine or TV….Give us a break….no one listens to the public viewers? Stop this insanity……

  9. cara

    I detest all the drug ads including OTC ads. Whether in magazines, the newspaper, pop ups on the computer screens, or on radio or TV they all should be banned. Whenever I hear words such as “and even causes death” I always think, “well, there’s a drug we all should be taking. America needs to wake up. We are being drugged to death and the only ones getting rich is “Pig” Pharma.

  10. mm

    What I find interesting about Drug Company Ads, other than obnoxious, are attorney Ads, also obnoxious, stating in effect, contact us to file a lawsuit against Drug Companies if you have experienced the following…drugs, legal or illegal are big money makers and we, the citizens are victims of over zealous Drug Companies and attorneys BOTH seeking to make their fortune! My last doctor was a pill pusher, “I can give you a prescription” for this or that, I always declined the offer. My late 94 year old mother was on 8 prescription drugs before she died. That is truly ridiculous.

  11. Robert H. Spielman

    and the way it sounds is, that your Doctor is a “real Doof” … Doesn’t he know what you are already taking, what your medical history is, and what he has prescribed for you? Or is it some of these people run out and buy all of this stuff on a whim, because of the ads? Isn’t this junk supposed to be gotten with a doctor’s Prescription, or is it sold like candy at the store? How Gullible some people can be! I prefer to eat my supper in peace, thank you!

  12. Mary

    The US is one of few countries that allow prescription drug advertisements.
    I sincerely wish the FDA would stop allowing these to be broadcast or put into consumer magazines. I know it would not stop them in things like JAMA.

  13. DakotaBoy

    “Ask your doctor” is bad enough. “Tell your doctor” is even worse. If your doctor doesn’t know you have low blood pressure or arthritis or whatever, you need a new doctor.

  14. Jennifer Young

    I would be interested in a study that might demonstrate how the cost of TV ads (production and placement) affects the consumer’s cost of purchasing the advertised drug.
    I get a kick out of the disclaimers that imply, “If you experience death, contact your physician.”

What Do You Think?

We invite you to share your thoughts with others, but remember that our comment section is a public forum. Please do not use your full first and last name if you want to keep details of your medical history anonymous. A first name and last initial or a pseudonym is acceptable. Advice from other commenters on this website is not a substitute for medical attention. Do not stop any medicine without checking with the prescriber. Stopping medication suddenly could result in serious harm. We expect comments to be civil in tone and language. By commenting, you agree to abide by our commenting policy and website terms & conditions. Comments that do not follow these policies will not be posted.

Your cart

Shipping and discount codes are added at checkout.