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Drug Ad Narrators: “It’s an Art”

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It’s no secret that the $5 billion dollar per year pharmaceutical industry has been known to bend, twist, ignore, or hide the truth. If you’re new to the topic, check out my last post on the reporting of side effects by drug manufacturers to the FDA.

Drug manufacturers are legally required to spend money telling you their products might lead to serious side effects, including death, whenever they advertise. Do to the long list of potential side effects with any given drug, this presents a difficult challenge of conveying a lot of unpleasant information in a short amount of space or time. We’ve all gotten used to seeing the fine print in a magazine ad, or hearing the speed-talking narrator on the TV commercial.

The U.S. is one of two countries to allow direct ads on TV. Since the first television drug ad ran in the 1980s, Drug manufacturers have “perfected their delivery” of this scary information, downplaying the severity of what is being said.

Stat News, a medical news website, recently interviewed some drug commercial narrators, who say “there’s an art” to conveying this information.”‘We use the same approach medical professionals do, telling a patient calmly: ‘We’re going to perform this surgery and there’s a 60 percent chance you won’t live,’” said Joey Schaljo, who has worked as a voice over actor on drug ads and who has a knack for narrating endless lists of side effects.” Some ads use a shift from the benefits of a drug to the side effects- one narrator to talk about the benefits of the drug and a different actor to recite the risks — in a less engaging voice. Another tactic is to have the warning section written with more complex sentence structures, to make it harder for viewers to absorb.

A cognitive scientist at Duke University who studies drug ads performed a study where she showed people commercials for two drugs that had similar side effects and addressed the same health condition. One ad rushed through the risks, and the other did not. The study participants had a more difficult time remembering the side effects from the rushed ad. The researcher has also found that consumers absorb the most information when they can see people speaking rather than just hearing them, so this is why the side effect narrator is often off screen, while a commercial character on screen explains the benefits.

If the FDA catches on to a particularly deceptive ad, manufacturers could risk a warning, or worse. Bayer was warned by the FDA in 2008 for ads for the birth control pill Yaz- the FDA stated the ads “seemed designed to distract viewers from the list of potential side effects.”  You can view the actual FDA warning letter here.

Some organizations, such as the American Medical Association, want to see drug ads completely banned.  While ads can be a great way to let patients know about new options, proceed with caution! When it comes to pharmaceuticals, it’s clearly best not to rely on advertisements. Talk to your doctor about side effects and carefully review all drug information.

Check out this video of the very first U.S. drug commercial for Rufen, a form of ibuprofen. Rufen- First U.S. Drug Ad