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Drug Advertising, Emotions and Our Medical Decisions

–Guest post by Judy Millili, American University graduate student.

In today’s technologically-driven digital age, consumers are constantly inundated with drug advertisements that encourage active engagement in making decisions related to their personal health. Tasked with the responsibility to process vast amounts of complex and often intricate available information, consumers have to seriously consider the risks associated with making health decisions based in large part on direct-to-consumer advertising (DTC).

Since DTC advertising is used as a way to clarify the complexities of medical information and terms, pharmaceutical companies often rely on emotion-triggering interpretative shortcuts in their communication campaigns to effectively market their products. In the realm of today’s digital nation, reliance on such “affect heuristics” is particularly important, especially with the advent of social media marketing. 

According to Paul Slovic, a leading researcher of risk perceptions and decision-making, “the [affect] heuristic impacts the way we perceive and evaluate risk, and more generally, the way it effects all human-decision making” (Slovic, Finucane, Peters, MacGregor 2004). In the context of DTC advertising in the pharmaceutical industry, reliance on consumer affect and emotion is a quicker, easier and more efficient method of communicating to patients. Such advertisements strategically employ emotional components to guide consumer information processing in a way that breaks down and simplifies complex information and medical terminology.

Emotions and Decision-Making

Patients often rely on affect heuristics communicated to them through DTC advertising in order to effectively weigh the risks and benefits associated with drugs on the market. DTC advertising can directly impact consumer decisions to buy or not buy particular products. Since the majority of consumers have limited knowledge regarding drug information, pharmaceutical companies are able to implement DTC advertising campaigns that use affective components to influence consumers.

For example, consider the mandatory inclusion of side effects in drug advertisements. Learning the negative side effects may cause consumers to have an adverse reaction to the drug being promoted. The necessary emphasis on side effects act as negative somatic markers – emotionally shaping physiological responses — and raising possible alarm in consumers, thus causing consumers to hesitate in considering the use of such drugs. Consequently, positive somatic markers in drug advertisements that emphasize treatment for ailments and the expressed happiness or physical well-being of actors in advertisements encourages consumers to ask their physicians about the drug, to search online for more information, or to ask a trusted friend or acquaintance.

The triggering of positive emotions produces automatic forms of information processing among patients, potentially helping consumers navigate efficiently through complex information. Of course, translating the language of doctors into succinct, understandable messages is an exercise laden with logistical challenges. Not only is it difficult to explicate inherently complex information to the lay public, pharmaceutical companies must also adhere to mandates set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and by their own company or industry code of ethics.

The flexibility of a message’s content is often limited by FDA regulations regarding the marketing and advertising of prescription and non-prescription drugs to consumers. Advertisements that describe or mention both a drug and its intended use are subject to the “brief summary” requirement. The brief summary provides recommendations pertaining to the disclosure of risk information in consumer-directed print advertisements.

While the summary itself is purposed as a guidance referral for print advertisements, it explains the regulatory mandates set under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The Act states, “an advertisement for a prescription drug must contain, in addition to the product’s established name and quantitative composition, a true statement including information in brief summary relating to side effects, contraindications and effectiveness as shall be required in regulations…” (Section 502(n) of the Act).

FDA regulations are meant to prevent fraudulent communication practices of DTC advertising related to the marketing of pharmaceutical drugs.  However, the controversy surrounding the reliance on DTC advertising to promote drugs continues to be a hot topic for debate.

Concerns Raised by Drug Advertising Strategies

The economic, ethical and social implications of advertising drugs directly to consumers are driving forces in the debate over DTC strategies. Specifically, the educational merits of DTC marketing are continually questioned.  Concern over whether consumers actually gain correct information from DTC advertisements remains very high.

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For example, studies suggest that over-the-counter drug messages tend to confuse consumers regarding side effect information and, as a result, consumers attribute side effects to all products in the same category (Sheffet & Kopp 1990).  The cognitive and emotional short-cuts that structure drugs may negatively prime consumers with false beliefs that all similar drugs are categorically the same. On the flip-side, DTC marketing theoretically offers consumers more product knowledge, increases awareness and provides them with information about new treatments.

Consumers’ ability to successfully process information transmitted by pharmaceutical companies is an issue to consider when looking at the effectiveness of DTC advertising. The implication, then, is the relatively new and extended role of the patient in terms of medical decision-making. What once was the sole decision of physicians is now a joint collaboration between doctors and patients that is made possible through the ever-changing sphere of how drugs are promoted and marketed to the general public. As DTC advertising through the use of modern social media technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs becomes the norm, the dynamic of the physician-patient relationship will continue to evolve both in potentially beneficial and troubling ways, with patients adopting both automatic and more active roles personal health decisions.

–Guest post by Judy Millili, an MA student in Public Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.  Read other posts from her project team examining social media influence and regulation in the pharmaceutical industry as well posts from other project teams in her course.


Sheffet, M.J., Kopp, S.W. (1990) Advertising Prescription Drugs to the Public: Headache or Relief? Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. Vol. 9. 42-61.

Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., MacGregor, D. G. (2004). Risk as Analysis and Risk as Feelings: Some Thoughts about Affect, Reason, Risk, and Rationality. Risk Analysis. Vol. 24. No. 2. 


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