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Study: Cancer ads tug at heartstrings, leave out caveats
May 26th, 2014
05:07 PM ET

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.


soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. cali girl

    It does tug at our hearts. Worked with Children's Hospital of Oakland, a company I worked for gave much needed funds to them to help many causes. All of the proceeds helped children for many needs, like Free Car Seats and volunteer nurses and CHP helped to teach how to put them in the cars, also did injury and illness prevention ads.
    The hardest thing was to go to the ICU where children with cancer and give out gifts, to see their faces and all of the hooked up lines and machines. Could not hold back the tears on any of those trips.

    May 27, 2014 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. pogostick

    Their job is to bring in money by playing on your emotions and not give realistic facts. Isnt this how ads work? Look at all auto ads that give you the impressions you will king of you neighborhood when you buy their car. How many tell you the horrible repair rates, the quick depreacation or real gas mileage?

    May 27, 2014 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • normalperson24242

      Traditionally the feds have taken a dim view of drug makers and health providers who don't provide sufficient disclaimers on their ads. That's why half the time taken in a pill commerical is a listing of all the side effects. I'm not saying you are wrong, though. At the heart of it, these are mostly for-profit enterprises. The stakes are a little higher here than for automobiles though.

      May 28, 2014 at 14:51 | Report abuse |
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    In the meantime, the TEA party is condemning Obamacare because they wanted counselors to help people deal with end-of-life issues. The counselors were labeled as "death panels" and accused of rationing care. Guess who paid for the TEA party misinformation?

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