Why Patients Are Sick of TV Drug Ads

If you watched this year’s Super Bowl, particularly if you only paid attention to the commercials, then you probably remember the now-infamous ad for Xifaxan, a prescription-only treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. In the minute-long spot (watch here), an anthropomorphized gastrointestinal tract known as “Gut Guy” is shown cheering on his team when he’s suddenly overcome with a strong urge to use the bathroom. When Gut Guy sees a long line of people blocking his path to the toilet, the panic that spreads across his face is, for lack of a better word, visceral.

While some viewers, this writer included, thought Gut Guy was cute, others found him repulsive. Whatever your feelings about the Xifaxan ad, it was only Big Pharma’s latest attempt to enter living rooms nationwide at what many consider an inopportune time.

According to a survey by Treato.com, nearly half of consumers don’t think that pharmaceutical companies should be allowed to peddle their goods during family-friendly sporting events like the Super Bowl. Moreover, only 7 percent of respondents said that they had talked to their physician about a drug after seeing an ad for it on TV. Taken together, these insights raise some questions about both the effectiveness and appropriateness of direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising.

Perhaps Americans have tired of TV drug ads because they’re seeing more of them than ever before. According to Kandar Media, pharma’s advertising spending increased by 19 percent in 2015. Not surprisingly, 64 percent of consumers surveyed by Treato felt like they had seen more drug ads over the last year than in years prior. Given the public’s tenuous relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, drug advertising-related fatigue is probably more acute than it is for other products.


Consumers aren’t the only ones who are wary of drug ads. Last November the American Medical Association called for a ban on DTC drug advertising. Their concern is that “advertising…inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.” In other words, a patient might ask her doctor for the latest treatment, which she saw on TV, because she falsely believes that it’s more effective than drugs that are cheaper and have been on the market for a long time.

The debate over DTC drug advertising in the U.S. will likely remain unsettled for at least a few years. However, the FDA is currently investigating one specific aspect of these ads: the use of cartoon characters. The results of an ongoing study featuring campaigns created by real advertising firms will shed some light on the extent to which cartoons like the Xifaxan mascot serve to obscure important information about side effects. Could this be the beginning of the end for Gut Guy? Stay tuned.

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