Research has shown that prescription drug advertisements can have negative effects on public health. Most of these negative effects stem from the fact that advertisements misinform patients by leading them to an idealized perception of the drug. I wanted to know how drug commercials could be so persuasive, so I took a look at few commercials that have been aired in the recent past and found a few concerning trends. Take this commercial in the link below for example:
After watching this commercial, it’s easy to see how someone might be persuaded to take this medication. Every aspect of the commercial is designed to make you think positively about Abilify. The ad uses many overt and obvious tactics to make the drug seem likable, such a catchy phrase like, “Add Abilify” or having a cute little yellow pill act sad and then perk up when his blue, letter friend arrives. No one wants to see that little guy so sad — he clearly needs a friend. However, there are many persuasive factors at work in this commercial that aren’t so clear. Notice that in the beginning of the commercial, the music has a slow tempo and a neutral tone, but the moment they mention the word Abilify, the tempo speeds up and the melody starts to sound more happy and hopeful. This pleasant melody remains for the rest of the commercial, fluttering behind the list of extremely unpleasant side effects and potentially distracting from their severity.
Another covert tactic used in this ad is a change in the voice actor when they began speaking about the negative aspects of the medication. The change is subtle and some people probably don’t even notice it on the first listen. However, once they mention, “Abilify isn’t for everyone” the voice actor changes from a woman with a warm and pleasing voice to another woman with a more neutral, professional sounding voice. This tone is more similar to how doctors and health professionals tend to speak which may incline the viewer to trust the advertisement more, meaning that they may be more likely to believe that the list of negative side effects is complete, accurate, and appropriately emphasized. The voice races through the potential risks of the medication with very few, short pauses. This makes remembering this chunk of vital information difficult because our brains need time in order to process it adequately. If you compare this section of the commercial to the beginning and end, there is a clear difference in the speed of speech as well as the length of pauses between sentences. On top of that, they structure the advertisement to place the list of side effects directly in the middle of the ad, which cognitive psychologists have determined is section viewers are most likely to forget.
You will notice these patterns in almost every drug advertisement that you see and you may not think that it could make a huge difference, but now that you’ve been reading this post for a while, think back to the ad. How much about abilify do you actually remember? What it’s used for — who should be taking it — how cute the little yellow pill was, maybe? But how about the negatives — how many of the side effects do you remember? Or even worse, how many serious side effects do you think you may have forgotten?
If you don’t remember many, you’re not alone and this is part of the problem. Let me fill you in with a more factual representation the drug. Abilify or Aripiprazole is a strong antipsychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar I disorder, symptoms of tourette’s and autism as well as depression when combined with other medications. It was the number 1 best selling drug in America in 2013 (wonder why) with earnings of nearly 8 billion dollars in 2014 and I could bet that a lot of you at least recognize the name. Currently, the retail price of Abilify is a ridiculous $900 dollars for a 30-day supply. And the side effects we all forgot about — well, there’s way more than I could write and still keep your attention, but one of the most common is suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Although this drug can be a life saver for some people, it can also be very dangerous and if you still don’t believe me, I beg you to go back and look at the comments on the advertisement I posted. The severity of Abilify’s risks shows that choosing to prescribe it is a difficult decision and maybe there shouldn’t be commercials asking you to prod your doctor for it.