With more and more branded consumer products finding their way directly into popular television sitcoms and dramas, are prescription drugs soon to follow?
Pharmaceutical product placement in TV shows is a very real possibility that warrants attention from the federal Food and Drug Administration and other policymakers, a new UCLA report argues.
In a paper published in the spring issue of the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, UCLA clinical research fellow Sony Ta and Dominick Frosh, a UCLA assistant professor of general internal medicine and health services research, recommend the development and enforcement of new federal guidelines to protect consumers from misleading or inaccurate information.
"There have been numerous examples of drug manufacturers releasing [direct to consumer] campaigns that are later withdrawn because of FDA warnings about misleading and overreaching statements," Ta and Frosch write. "Our observation suggests that drug inclusion in scripts is, at best, poorly supervised and leaves the possibility for aggressive marketers to abuse this potential."
The authors, both with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, argue that the "trusting" relationship some viewers develop with television characters — particularly doctors and nurses — can make them prime targets for the potentially inflated claims of pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Currently, pharmaceutical advertisements are ubiquitous during commercial breaks. But with digital video technologies like TiVo allowing viewers to skim through commercials touting the newest cholesterol-lowering and erectile dysfunction drugs, how can companies find a captive audience?
Food and beverage companies, car manufacturers and others have discovered that placing their products directly into programs is an effective way of reaching these wily viewers and increasing brand awareness. So, will viewers soon be seeing the good doctors on "ER" prescribe specific cholesterol or acid reflux medications? Or will a "desperate housewife" become suspicious when the well-known blue, diamond-shaped pill appears her new lover's drawer?
The FDA regulates prescription drug advertising, but the agency does not have a specific policy regulating how drugs are promoted outside traditional TV commercials. With no policies to guide pharmaceutical product placement, consumers may find that TiVo can't help them avoid drug marketing.
The authors suggest three alternatives:
- Better enforce established federal regulations — sponsors could be identified in the credits at the beginning or end of a broadcast.
- Recognize that commercial drug placements are advertisements and require them to follow FDA guidelines for traditional prescription drug ads. (This would be unlikely, given that the Federal Trade Commission does not consider product placements advertisements; still, it is the FDA that ultimately regulates prescription drug marketing.)
- Approach drug product placements as a distinct form of promotion requiring new guidelines.
"We believe that prescription drugs, like OTC medications and dietary supplements, are different from other products, including alcohol and tobacco because of the perceived health benefits argued for their consumption, and this warrants distinct recognition," the authors write. "Because product placements are a different form of promotion than commercials, we also believe that new guidelines need to be developed for their use. In the case of drug placements, the third policy alternative discussed may be an appropriate balance between the current regulatory environment and consumer protection."