60-Second Science

Drug Ad Side Effects List Helps Sell Product

Viewers of TV ads for medications interpret the listing of negative side effects as a sign of trustworthiness of the advertiser. Erika Beras reports.

[List of side effects for a fake prescription drug in a parody of a TV ad.] Medications come with long lists of potential side effects. Now a study finds that the litany of unpleasant consequences does not deter prospective purchasers. In fact, those warnings might actually increase drug sales.

For the study, subjects were shown two different versions of ads for three different products: cigarettes, artificial sweeteners and medications. 

One version of the ads clearly warned of potential perils—for example, hair loss, weight gain or stroke. The other set of ads were warning-free.

Subjects who saw ads with warnings were initially less likely to buy the products. But when surveyed again some time later, they were actually more likely to make the purchase than were those who saw ads without the warnings. The study is in the journal Psychological Science.  [Yael Steinhart, Ziv Carmon and Yaacov Trope, Warnings of Adverse Side Effects Can Backfire Over Time]

The researchers say after some time goes viewers of the ads interpret the listing of negative side effects as a show of good faith: a sign of trustworthiness. Who would have thought you could increase demand with...nausea, diarrhea, bloating, etcetera….

—Erika Beras

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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