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Drug ads may overwhelm consumers

In this image, an open orange pill bottle spills small white pills onto a plain white countertop.
Photo: Tom Kelley/Getty Images

Federal regulations require drug companies to include both major and minor side effects in their direct-to-consumer advertising — the risk of heart attacks as well as, say, dry mouth.

Why it matters: All of that information may be overwhelming consumers, causing them not to internalize the most significant risks, according to Scientific American.

Details: Researchers asked a group of people to read 2 print ads for Lunesta, the sleep aid. One was the actual ad, featuring 2 major side effects and 2 minor ones; the other only included the major side effects.

  • People who read the ad with more side effects rated the drug as safer, and thus more appealing, than people who only saw the major ones.
  • Researchers got the same results when they played the full radio ad for Cymbalta vs. an edited version that eliminated minor side effects.

What they found: Presenting people with a lot of information can dilute each piece of information, the researchers said — if you want people to really hear 1 thing, you shouldn't also tell them 20 other things at the same time.

  • In mock-up print ads, putting the major side effects in a bold font seemed to help people remember them better, even with minor side effects still listed in regular type.

Go deeper: Hospitals are making a lot of money on outpatient drugs