The Chart

Study: Cancer ads tug at heartstrings, leave out caveats

Advertisements for cancer centers are inflated with emotions, but fail to disclose the fine print, according to a study released Monday. The report, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and funded by the National Institute of Health, examined 409 unique TV and magazine advertisements from top media markets.

With more than 1.6 million new cancer cases diagnosed each year, the direct-to-consumer ads pushing to various cancer centers across the country, and specific cancer treatments, are increasing.

A systematic content analysis of these ads found that the content is sharply directed at a would-be patient’s heartstrings:

  – 85% made emotional appeals to consumers
  – 61% used language about hope, extension of life, or a cure
  – 52% touted innovative, or advanced technology or treatments
  – 30% evoked fear by mentioned death, fear, or loss

Nearly half of the advertisements included patient testimonials, but only 15% included a disclaimer about patient outcome. No advertisements described the outcomes a “typical” patient may experience. Failure to disclose this information is a violation of a Federal Trade Commission mandate, the report notes.

Noticeably missing from most of the TV and magazine ads is information about the risks, scientific-supported benefits and cost:

  – 2% disclosed the risks of the cancer treatment
  – 5% mentioned cost of treatment

While the report didn’t look at how the ads effect patients' decision for care, the researchers note that emotion-based advertisement is a powerful means of persuasion and potentially harmful to the consumer.

“Clinical advertisements that use emotional appeal uncoupled with information about indications, benefits, risks, or alternatives may lead patients to pursue care that is either unnecessary or unsupported by scientific evidence.”

Unnecessary tests or treatments not only expose patients to avoidable risks, but could also lead to distress if the treatment does not work.

Researchers say further studies are needed to determine if misleading cancer center advertising on TV and in magazines is contributing to the rapidly escalating cost of cancer care in the United States.