Family Health Risk in Pharmaceutical Advertising Encourages New Medication Use, Healthy Lifestyles

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Media Contact: | | August 24, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -– Direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising pointing out family health risks can positively influence people to try new medications and lead a healthier lifestyle.

That was one result of a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Georgia.  Researchers Minsun Shim, with the University of Georgia’s Department of Speech Communication, and Joseph N. Cappella and Caryn Lerman from Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication analyzed the responses of 400 adults who looked at advertisements for different pharmaceuticals in an effort to address:  

  • What effects do direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertisements have when familial risk cues are included?
  • Do they encourage a path to a healthy lifestyle? Do they encourage someone to obtain the medication? Do both of the aforementioned actions happen? Neither?
  • Do familial risk advertisements affect one’s outlook for their health?  Do people become fatalistic, as in “I am going to get this disease no matter what?”

The results of the trio’s research are reported in the August issue of the “Journal of Applied Communication Research.” The research may have impact on how pharmaceutical advertising campaigns are developed.

Familial risk in DTC pharmaceutical advertising ties the chances of getting a disease or medical condition to one‘s family history.  Marketing for the cholesterol-fighting drug Vytorin does this by citing two sources of cholesterol, “food and family.”

The researchers took advertisements for three pharmaceutical medications -- Vytorin for high cholesterol, Actonel for osteoporosis and Bayer for heart disease.  Participants in the control segment viewed manipulated versions of the advertisements; for example, the Vytorin copy was changed from “food and family” to “food and inactivity.”

Participants who viewed the un-altered advertisements with familial risk cues did not exhibit fatalistic attitude but rather reported a stronger intention to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors than those who viewed ads without those cues.  However, no interaction effect was found between exposure to familial risk cues in the ads and family history.

“In a way, we do not believe we are our like our parents in that the respondents felt they can overcome family risks to health issues by both pursuing a healthy lifestyle and investigating use of the advertised medications,” Shim said. 

She said the research suggests that the use of terminology such as gene causes rather than family risk may be more effective for medication promotion in DTC pharmaceutical marketing campaigns. 

“From the public health perspective, however, consideration should also be given to enhancing the willingness of consumers to engage in healthy lifestyles when using genetic or familial risk appeals in DTC ads,” Shim said. “Additionally, more research is needed to help us understand the relationship between willingness to exercise and to seek medical assistance to improve one’s health. Lastly, ethical issues associated with this are significant. There remains the possibility that someone may seek medications even though there is no family health risk in their personal background.”

For a copy of the full study, contact Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, www.asc.upenn.edu/news/News.aspx.

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