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Study: Consumers can’t spot deadly risks among the mundane

You’ve seen the commercials: a pharmaceutical commercial breaks from selling you a new drug to list 30 seconds of side effects. Somewhere in between listing dry mouth and indigestion is a reference to how the drug might kill you.

These Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) advertisements are governed by the FDA, and by rule must list side effects to inform consumers. But does a listing of all side effects both serious and minor help consumers decide the risks benefits?

A new study in Nature Human Behavior is titled “The unintended consequences of argument dilution in direct-to-consumer drug advertisements”. Authored by Niro Sivanathan and Hemant Kakkar, it contends minor side effects can hide the more serious side effects from notice:

When commercials list severe side effects along with those that are most frequent (which include both serious and minor side effects), as required by the Food and Drug Administration, it dilutes consumers’ judgements of the overall severity of the side effects, compared with when only the serious side effects are listed.

The study, which used six experiments and over 3,000 participants, also notes that hiding big side effects behind little side effects increased consumer’s willingness to use the prescription medication:

Furthermore, consumers’ reduced judgement of severity leads to greater attraction to those drugs. In regulating pharmaceutical advertisements, the Food and Drug Administration appear to have paradoxically dampened consumers’ judgements of overall severity and risk, and increased the marketability of these drugs.

The United States is just one of two countries that allows this form of direct to consumer advertising of medications, and efforts to make it effective for the well being of patients continues. The American Medical Association in 2015 sought a ban on the practice.