Living in the " land of no" ? Consumer perceptions of healthy lifestyle portrayals in direct-to-consumer advertisements of prescription drugs

Dominick L. Frosch, Suepattra G. May, Caroline Tietbohl, José A. Pagán

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of prescription drugs is the most common form of health communication Americans are exposed to. The effects of DTCA on prescription requests and utilization are well established, but little is known about the effects of advertisements on health behaviors. Many advertisements, especially those promoting drugs to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease, refer to lifestyle change as a way to improve health. However, no studies have examined how consumers interpret these frequently ambiguous messages. We used in-depth interviews with 45 participants, recruited in Los Angeles, USA between April 2007 and July 2008, to explore perceptions of 5 advertisements for drugs that prevent or treat cardiovascular disease (Lipitor ®, Vytorin ®, Zetia ®, Caduet ®, Plavix ®). We found that participants interpreted advertising messages within their own life context and identified four trajectories for enacting behavior change versus taking prescription drugs: Negotiators, Avoiders, Embracers and Jumpstarters. Underlying these four typologies were beliefs about whether lifestyle change was something an individual could do or was willing to do. Our results also show how an advertisement narrative could potentially shift perceptions of causality by suggesting that high cholesterol is primarily hereditary, thereby obviating the need for lifestyle change. Some participants stated that they would prefer lifestyle change to a particular prescription drug, but felt that others would be more likely to embrace taking a prescription drug. This " Third Person Effect" may be masking participants' intentions by identifying a more socially desirable route to therapeutic change. These findings raise questions about how the typologies are distributed in the population and how advertising may shift consumers' beliefs over time, thereby contributing to new forms of medicalization. Effective regulation of DTCA may require expanding scrutiny beyond the accuracy of claims about benefits and risks, to also considering the broader narratives in which these claims are made.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)995-1002
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2011


  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Direct-to-consumer advertising
  • Health behavior
  • Medications
  • USA

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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