A central goal in regulating direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription pharmaceuticals (DTCA) is to ensure that explicit drug claims are truthful. Yet imagery can also alter viewer attitudes, and the degree to which this occurs in DTCA is uncertain. Addressing this data gap, we provide evidence that positive feelings produced by images can promote favourable beliefs about pharmaceuticals. We had participants view a fictitious anti-influenza drug paired with unrelated images that elicited either positive, neutral or negative feelings. Participants who viewed positive images rated the influenza drug as significantly more effective, safe, and beneficial than did participants who viewed negative images. This effect, known as evaluative conditioning, is well described in experimental social psychology but has not previously been shown with pharmaceuticals. We discuss how evaluative conditioning in DTCA may compromise viewer autonomy, and canvass possible regulatory responses.
Biegler P. Vargas P. Feeling is believing: evaluative conditioning and the ethics of pharmaceutical advertising. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. 2016;13(2): 271-9