Helmeted Toe Cartoons (Ew!) May Distort Drug Risks in TV Spots

  • FDA to study whether animations skew consumers' perceptions
  • Regulators post document outlining experiment on TV spots

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.

“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 & Co., maker of Nasonex, and other companies that use animated figures in their advertising didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The FDA’s main study will enroll 1,500 participants to watch ads and then answer an online survey. This is one of many aspects of direct-to-consumer advertising the FDA is examining, which also include whether the statement at the end of commercials disclosing side effects is too long and reduces consumer comprehension.