RX Ads: Side Effects Are Million-Dollar Budgets

By George Farris, CEO, Farris Marketing

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – You are watching football alone at home while your spouse is shopping. Ten minutes into the first quarter, your pizza is delivered.

As you sit down and lift that first slice to your mouth, a timeout is called. A commercial for a prescription drug begins to play.

The spot has the usual images of a couple who are sort of sad and sedentary. As the spot continues, the same couple are now sort of happy. Now, they are walking, biking and playing football with the grandkids. The voice over indicates one person was suffering from illness “XYZ” but is being treated with “YADAYA.” 

It seems like there will be a peaceful and happy ending. Then, a voiceover starts to list side effects. It begins innocently enough with “If you have illness XYZ, YADAYA may be right for you.”

Your peace and your appetite disappear as the voiceover continues, “Side effects of YADAYA are rare and include headache, nausea, vomiting, death, dizziness …”

“Wow,” you think. “That’s horrible.” 

But the announcer is not done, “… dysentery, cardiac arrhythmia, mild heart explosions, varicose veins, darkened stool, darkened soul, lycanthropy, trucanthropy, more vomiting, arteriosclerosis, hemorrhoids, fear of wallpaper, mild discomfort, vampirism, gender impermanence, sugar high, spontaneous dental hydroplosion, even more vomiting, and mild rash.”


We expect to see these kinds of spots when we’re watching our favorite episode of “Golden Girls” (that Sophia sure is sassy) – but during football? Yes, during football – and just about everywhere else. 

According to Statista.com, prescription drug companies are now spending $7 billion a year on ads – mostly on TV – and that’s expected to continue to rise.

Of the 195 countries in the world, only two allow direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals with product claims: the United States and New Zealand.

As The Morning Call reports, “With an average of 80 pharmaceutical ads per hour on TV today, this is the most frequent form of health communication the average American sees.”


One result of the advertising is a substantial increase in prescription drug sales. Some people believe that’s a good thing for the companies and consumers.

Drug companies say revenue from prescription drug sales funds research and the development of new drugs. Big Pharma points to research that finds lower out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

The drug companies claim advertising can serve a positive role, giving consumers awareness of medical conditions and available treatments.

There are critics – including medical professionals – who oppose direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs.

In 2015, the American Medical Association called for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs and other medical devices. The AMA cited research indicating the advertising has led to patients seeking unnecessary treatment. 

Some consumer groups claim the advertising just serves to persuade existing customers to switch from one drug to another brand: creating an “arms race” among pharmaceutical companies.

I favor a free market but requiring the side effects disclaimer on the TV spots is a good balance. In fact, I’d probably add one more disclaimer – “Do not attempt to eat pizza during this commercial.”