Vital Signs Blog

Cancer centers' ads rely on emotion, lack information, study shows

Cancer-treatment ads use emotional appeals evoking hope and fear while providing little information about risks, benefits, costs or insurance availability, according to a new National Institutes of Health-funded study posted on the Annals of Internal Medicine website.

Even ads promoting “the nation's most prestigious cancer centers”—those facilities with National Cancer Institute designation for developing innovative treatments and conducting promising research—leaned heavily on emotional appeals and provided incomplete information, study authors wrote.

“Given the inherently frightening nature of cancer, it may be impossible for cancer centers to advertise without affecting viewers' emotions to some degree,” the authors concluded. “However, 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.”

Of the ads studied, 85% included emotional appeals; 61% used messages of hope; almost 41% described cancer treatment as a fight or battle; 30% evoked fear; and 19% had messages describing “unrelenting” care such as “care that never quits.”

Only 31% mentioned personalized treatment; just less than 26% discussed patient comfort, compassion, symptom management or quality of life; and just 6% noted that patients and families were involved in decision making.

Also, 57% of the ads mentioned a specific type of cancer; almost 27% mentioned specific potential benefits of the advertised therapy such as a shorter hospital stay; only 5% mentioned costs or coverage; and fewer than 2% mentioned risks such as incontinence or impotence.

Cancer patient testimonials were part of 44% of the ads, with 5% including an endorsement from a national or local celebrity. The authors noted, however, that only 15% included a disclaimer that results may vary, and no ads described the typical outcome patients should expect.

More than 1.6 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed annually, and a 45% increase in cancer incidence is projected by 2030, noted University of Pittsburgh Medical Center researchers and lead author Laura Vater, a former UPMC research assistant and now a student at the Indiana (South Bend) University School of Medicine. They also cited a 2009 survey that found that 86% of cancer patients reported being aware of cancer-related advertising and wrote that “patients with advanced cancer often overestimate the potential benefits they will receive from new treatments or their chance for cure.”

Vater and colleagues analyzed 409 unique local and national cancer treatment ads published in 269 consumer magazines or aired on 44 television networks in 2012. The authors noted that surveys said cancer patients were most aware of magazine and television ads, and they wrote that the ads studied reached a combined audience of almost 116 million people.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Gregory Abel, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of medicine and a physician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, noted that—unlike most medical ads—cancer treatment promotions may serve additional purposes besides attracting new patients. These include influencing future physician referrals and building and maintaining an institution's reputation.

Abel applauded the work of Vater and her colleagues, but warned that pushing facilities to include more information in their ads could lead to some making misleading claims. If that happens, he said the “uncomfortable practice” of appealing to hope and fear could be replaced by something worse—misinformation.

Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks


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