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Blog: FDA to study animation in drug commercials

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will look into the use of animation in drug ads to understand how cartoons affect how consumers feel about drugs.

Minimal research exists on how animation affects how individuals perceive the risks or benefits of drug consumption. The FDA, which regulates pharma advertising, wants to understand whether cartoons make people believe drugs work better or carry fewer risks.

The mucous monsters promoting Mucinex, the odd intestine-like mascot for Xifaxan and an anthropomorphic fungus-infested toe used in Jublia commercials are just some examples of current ads. Others feature animated humans, including an ad for Abilify, which treats schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

In some cases, the use of animated characters has been shown to lead to stronger brand recall and brand association. The few studies that have been done on one technique—the use of humans who are animated through a process known as rotoscoping—found that the animated human characters had no effect on perceived product risk or poorer recognition of drug side effects.

The FDA plans to conduct two studies looking at the impact of animations and non-animation on the consumer's thought process. Researchers will also consider whether consumers understand ads differently depending on the focus of the ad, whether it be the sufferer, the disease or the drug's benefit.

The study will examine consumer reaction to ads for mock drugs used to treat chronic dry eye and psoriasis, each using two different types of animation as well as a live-action ad. The conditions were picked for their varying risk: psoriasis drugs tend to have many risks and side effects, while chronic dry eye medication tends to have few. Participants will be recruited via the Internet.

The use of animation in drug commercials reflects a systematic effort among manufacturers to minimize risk and exaggerate benefits, said Bruce Lambert, director of the Center for Communication and Health at Northwestern University. Regulators require drugmakers to mention risks whenever they draw attention to a drug's benefit, but the most common warning letters sent to drug marketers by the FDA are for minimizing risk in their ads, he said.

Though research is slim on how animated drug commercials affect risk perception, Lambert noted that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Joe Camel character was shown to be a potent tool in marketing cigarettes to American young adults. “He was extremely effective in (increasing) brand recognition and attitude towards Camel cigarettes,” he said.

Lambert speculated that drugmakers' intention is to use animation to charm consumers. He said animation often has implications of innocence, harmlessness and amusement, and not the danger and threat that can come with drugs.

“The idea of using animated characters to create a message source that has these characteristics will soften the underlying message,” Lambert said.

Here are just a few drug commercials that use animation:


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