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The FDA Wants to Find Out if Cartoon Drug Ads Are Bad for Consumers

This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

The FDA is launching a new study to examine how the use of cartoons and animation in direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising affects viewers, including whether it obscures important safety and side effect information.

Graphic by Mod Art Collection—CFA Images via Getty Images

"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," wrote the agency in a notice to the Federal Register.

The FDA will be running two separate experiments involving a total of 1,500 participants in order to glean insight into the effects of animated pharma spots. Regulators will employ a professional advertising firm to create a series of commercials for made-up drugs to treat psoriasis and chronic dry eye and show them to patients diagnosed with those conditions.

One of these ad series 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 which are meant to either represent the patient, the disease, or the benefits of a medication.

The main purpose of these experiments is to see whether or not the animated ads have a detrimental effect on viewers' recollection of important safety and side effect information. As the FDA notes, there is some existing evidence that cartoon ads significantly help burnish therapies such as Abilify, Zoloft, and Lunesta in patients' memories, but may also obscure the risk information which must be detailed in all pharma ads by law.

America is a clear outlier globally when it comes to DTC drug ads. Just one other nation, New Zealand, allows companies to peddle their products directly to consumers, and the practice has come under renewed fire in recent months.

Last fall, the American Medical Association called for a blanket ban on DTC drug and medical device ads, asserting that such advertising "inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate."

Pharma has a very different take on the issue. Former Eli Lilly marketing exec and pharmaceutical consultant Richard Meyer penned an op-ed in Stat News at the end of last year slamming the AMA's ban proposal as misguided and arguing that there's evidence that DTC drug ads actually help lead high-risk patients to have potentially life-saving conversations with their doctors.

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