The risk that direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription pharmaceuticals (DTCA) may increase inappropriate medicine use is well recognized. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration addresses this concern by subjecting DTCA content to strict scrutiny. Its strictures are, however, heavily focused on the explicit claims made in commercials, what we term their “propositional content.” Yet research in social psychology suggests advertising employs techniques to influence viewers via nonpropositional content, for example, images and music. We argue that one such technique, evaluative conditioning, is operative in DTCA. We further argue that evaluative conditioning fosters unjustified beliefs about drug safety and efficacy, antagonising the autonomy of viewers’ choices about advertised medicines. We conclude that current guidelines are deficient in failing to account for evaluative conditioning, and that more research and debate are needed to determine the permissibility of this and other forms of nonpropositional persuasion.

Biegler P, Vargas P. Ban the sunset? Non-propositional content and regulation of pharmaceutical advertising. American Journal of Bioethics 2013; 13 (5): 3-13