How listing side effects on TV ads can sell more drugs

I must not be the only person to wonder how pharmaceutical companies succeed with direct to consumer advertisements when, stuck in the middle of all their TV ads, are those long lists of side effects.  You know what I mean.  After watching a smiling and attractive person running through a field after receiving some wonder pill, the narrator tucks his voice down an octave and intones that the medication “could cause rashes, constipation, heartburn, bladder dysfunction and cardiogenic syncope.”  How could anyone listening to this ad want to take this product?

Research by Yael Steinhart and colleagues suggests that such warnings may increase how much people like the product, but only after they have had the time to get over their immediate aversion to the side effects.

Steinhart presented people with product advertisements that either did or did not include product warnings. In the short run, such warnings scared consumers — they were less inclined to buy the products. No surprise here.

But for some people, the researchers didn’t ask for their immediate attitudes towards the product. Instead, they re-contacted them two weeks later. This delay people exposed to the warning were acting more inclined to buy the product. Why? Because they believed the manufacturer to be more trustworthy.

This research builds on a field of inquiry exploring how “construal level” influences people’s thoughts and behaviors. Big words, but a pretty simple idea. Construal theory posits that people’s judgments differ when thinking about the immediate future versus the more distant future . When thinking about the here and now, people get  concrete. But in the longer run, the immediacy of the side effects fades, and the more abstract truth of the warnings (“They sure were honest about the downsides of their product!”) loom larger.

Hopefully this means the short run, very concrete response I get from my teenagers when I harass them to do their homework will someday, perhaps in the very very distant future, be replaced by the much more abstract idea that, gosh darn it, I harass them out of love.

Peter Ubel is a physician and behavioral scientist who blogs at his self-titled site, Peter Ubel and can be reached on Twitter @PeterUbel.  He is the author of Critical Decisions: How You and Your Doctor Can Make the Right Medical Choices TogetherThis article originally appeared in Forbes.

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