Critical Decisions

The ins and outs of our medical decisions

Side Effect Warnings Can Increase Pharmaceutical Sales

The psychology behind the “ironic effect of warnings”

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 mentions 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 contacted them again 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 distant future, be replaced by the much more abstract idea that, gosh darn it, I harass them out of love.

***Previously posted on Forbes***

Peter Ubel, M.D., author of Critical Decisions and Free Market Madness, is a physician, behavioral scientist, and Professor of Business and Public Policy at Duke University.

more...

Subscribe to Critical Decisions

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?