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TESS VIGELAND: If you watch even 20 minutes of TV a week, you can't miss them -- ads for prescription drugs. In 2005, the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $4 billion on direct-to-consumer advertising.
So, they must be working, right? Not according to a study out today from Harvard Medical School researchers.
Janet Babin reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.
JANET BABIN: It's difficult to measure the effect advertising has on prescription drug sales, because there's nothing to compare it to. Nearly all of us see the ads.
So the researchers studied prescriptions in Canada -- 95 percent of French Canadians don't watch U.S. television. Their prescription habits were compared to the English-speaking provinces, who do watch U.S. TV.
The results would probably surprise the pharmaceutical industry.
Harvard Medical School professor Stephen Soumerai co-authored the report.
Stephen Soumerai: There wasn't an ounce of effect for a drug for arthritis, and a drug for allergies.
But the poor results may have something to do with the drugs the team studied.
Biopharma analyst Eric Snyder with Mehta Partners says people who have arthritis or allergies have a slew of drugs to choose from, so the ads can end up sounding like white noise:
Eric Snyder: When it's a competitive class, and it's essentially like brands of cereal barking at each other, nothing really sticks.
Snyder says direct-to-consumer drug advertising does work for new drug therapies. But the Harvard researchers say it's only a temporary sales uptick.
And who doesn't laugh when it comes time for the ad to list the drug's side effects?
Again, here's study author Stephen Soumerai:
Stephen Soumerai: I think there are a lot of smart consumers out there, and they see these ads are silly, and they see the required side effects, some of which are actually terrible.
The study in the British Medical Journal comes at a time when the U.S. Senate may consider a bill that would limit some pharmaceutical ads.
I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.