FDA to Test Whether Animated Drug Ads Obscure Important Safety Information

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced the launch of a new study to examine how the use of cartoons and animation in consumer drug advertising affects viewers, including whether such ads obscure important safety and side effect information.

“To our knowledge, no studies have comprehensively examined how animation affects consumers’ benefit and risk perceptions in drug ads, how various animation strategies (e.g., symbolizing the disease vs. the benefit) influence these perceptions, and whether these effects are generalizable across different patient populations,” according to the FDA’s March 2, 2016 notice in the Federal Register.

The experiments will focus on two general research questions:

  • How does consumer processing of a DTC prescription drug ad differ depending on whether the ad is live-action, rotoscoped, or animated?
  • Does consumer processing differ depending on whether the sufferer, the disease, or the benefit is the focus of the animation?

The FDA noted that there is evidence that cartoon ads significantly enhanced the reputation of drugs such as Abilify, Zoloft, and Lunesta in patients’ memories, but may also have obscured the risk information that must, by law, be given in all pharmaceutical ads.

According to the Federal Register notice, “Animated characters may provide marketers with a way to explain product benefits in an engaging and even humorous manner . . . The extent to which emotional responses can be fostered by animated characters is especially relevant to this study, as the positive effects these animations induce might transfer to the brands being advertised.” But the FDA warned that using animated characters “may lead to lower perceived risk by minimizing or camouflaging side effects.”

Those who favor such ads argue that engaging advertising content “should improve learning and memory,” but “others argue that the entertainment aspects can distract from learning key information and may lead to message complexity that interferes with message communication.”

In the ads used in the experiment, one will feature live human actors as a control group while the others will involve varying degrees of animation, including humans who are transformed into cartoons through “rotoscoping” and non-human animations that are meant to represent the patient, the disease, or the benefits of a medication. The second experiment will examine whether the object of the animation influences consumer processing of the ad, defined as consumer recall of risks and benefits, perceptions of risks and benefits, and attitudes and emotional responses to the ad, the brand, the product, and the character. The two experiments will be conducted concurrently, and the same participants in the nonhuman sufferer groups will be part of both.

The American Medical Association has called for a blanket ban on direct-to-consumer ads for drugs and medical devices, saying that such advertising “inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate,” Fortune reports. Only the U.S. and New Zealand allow drug makers to market their products directly to consumers.

Pharmaceutical consultant and former Eli Lilly marketing executive Richard Meyer disagrees with the AMA’s call for a ban. He calls such a ban misguided and he argues that direct-to-consumer drug ads actually lead high-risk patients to have potentially life-saving conversations with their doctors, according to Fortune.





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