Five Fascinating Facts about Pharma TV ads

Updated: Jul 29

If you watch television in the US, you’re familiar with pharmaceutical ads. Whether they feature bizarre imagery or a celebrity mascot, all of them finish with a breathless voice-off listing possible side effects. But how and why did TV pharma ads get this way?

An article by pharmacist and writer Jennifer Mittler-Lee and an episode of NPR’s Planet Money explain how these ads originated. Both are full of fascinating facts, including these five standouts:

1. Pharma ads used to only be intended for doctors.

Once upon a time, pharma ads were printed in medical journals or distributed to doctors’ offices. The idea was that since doctors have to prescribe these treatments, they were the ones to inform - and try to sell to. That said, as Planet Money Host Sarah Gonzales explains, these ads weren’t just about selling a product; they were (and are) legally required to contain extensive information about things like trial results and side effects.


2. The first pharma TV ad targeted to consumers appeared in 1983.

That year, Boots Pharmacy’s US branch decided to target consumers with a televised ad for Rufen, a brand of ibuprofen (which was then only available by subscription).


3. The FDA never thought there would be televised pharma ads.

Their guidelines require the ads to list all of a medication’s side effects, which seemed impossible to do in a short TV spot. But, as anyone who’s seen a pharma TV commercial knows, ad execs were able to get around it - cue the fast scrolling print and lighting-quick voice-over!


4. A Viagra TV ad revolutionized the way spokespersons are chosen.

For its TV ad campaign for Viagra, Pfizer wanted to show that there’s no shame in erectile dysfunction. They eventually recruited former US senator Bob Dole as the face of their campaign.


There are many “firsts” here, but the most interesting might just be that this was the first time a televised pharma ad used a spokesperson who actually suffered from the condition the drug being advertised was supposed to help with. Nowadays, we see this often, and not only in pharma TV ads; many celebrities and influencers regularly promote treatments and medications for the medical conditions that affect them personally.

5. The US and New Zealand are the only countries in the world that allow televised ads for prescription drugs.

While over-the-counter medications may have ad time on the air, prescription drug advertising is normally still relegated to the medical field, not the average consumer. Meanwhile, in the US at least, these ads, known as DTC (direct-to-consumer) have been responsible for making many prescription drugs a household name.


In addition to discussing the evolution of pharma ads on TV, Mittler-Lee also explains what their future might be. With the rise of streaming services, TV commercials are on the decline. But, as you may have guessed, this doesn’t video advertising will disappear. Instead, it’s increasingly going online - for instance, before that YouTube video you want to watch.

Pharma advertising is also branching out, with celebrity and influencer endorsements and online print ads. If you find TV pharma ads annoying, one consolation is that with these last two formats, there’s no need for a long, breathlessly recited list of side effects!


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