FDA Study Explores Whether Cartoons Distort Drug Risks in TV Spots

Regulators Look to Determine if Animated Figures Skew Perceptions of Risks Associated With Medications

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Jublia's commercials and marketing utilize cartoon characters.
Jublia's commercials and marketing utilize cartoon characters. Credit: Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, Inc.

Drug companies have been drawn to using animated figures in their advertising, from the bee with the sexy Antonio Banderas accent that wants you to use Nasonex nasal spray to the football-helmeted big toe with foot fungus hawking Jublia. Now U.S. regulators are taking a closer look.

The Food and Drug Administration wants to know if these memorable images skew perceptions of risks associated with medications. In a document posted online Tuesday, the agency outlined plans to study how consumers process live action and animated ads. The agency will also analyze responses to commercials where live action is traced frame-by-frame to create animated characters, which Japanese drugmaker Otsuka Holdings Co. has done in ads for its antidepressant Abilify.

Ability's commercials once utilized cartoon characters.
Ability's commercials once utilized cartoon characters. Credit: iSpotTV

"The positive effects these animations induce might transfer to the brands being advertised," the FDA wrote in the document, outlining experiments it will conduct on mock drugs for chronic dry eye and psoriasis. "It is also possible that animated characters may lead to lower perceived risk by minimizing or camouflaging side effects."

Drugmakers spent $3.1 billion on direct-to-consumer advertising in 2012, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The FDA document singled out Otsuka's Abilify ads as well as Novartis AG's marketing of Lamisil, another toenail fungus drug, featuring "Digger the Dermatophyte"; the sad "dot" used in Pfizer Inc.'s commercials for the antidepressant Zoloft; and spots for Lunesta from Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma Co. that depict a glowing butterfly to sell the sleep aid.

"Personifying animated characters may interfere with message communication," the FDA said in the document. "Whether personified characters lead to reduced comprehension of risk and benefit information in drug ads is an important and unanswered question."

Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., which makes Jublia, Merck

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