Advertising is all about presenting a product in the most flattering light possible. Still, there are limits to what marketers can and cannot say, particularly when it comes to hawking items that directly affect consumers' physical well-being, such as pharmaceuticals.

That's what makes the results of a new study led by Mount Sinai School of Medicine particularly shocking: It found that a measly 18% of pharmaceutical ads comply with FDA guidelines.

The study, published last week in the journal Public Library of Science One, looked at physician-directed ads in medical journals during November 2008. The drugs in the ads included quite a few high-risk ones, including cancer meds.

P.S.: May Cause Death

Of the ads the researchers looked at, over half (58%) failed to quantify serious risks including death, and only 52% had appropriate references so that doctors could go and check the data and the studies themselves. But there were many other offenses according to the study. For example:

  • Novo Nordisk's (NVO) ad for NovoLog, a fast-acting insulin for diabetics, claimed a certain efficacy statistic on the front page. But in the references listed in the third page of the ad, the actual data was misrepresented.
  • Neither Pfizer's (PFE) ad for the world's best-selling drug, cholesterol fighter Lipitor, nor AstraZeneca's (AZN) ad for Crestor had references to support the drugs' efficacy claims.
  • Eli Lilly's (LLY) ad for Alimta, a drug for a certain type of advanced lung cancer, showed an apparently healthy person windsurfing. The image clearly misrepresents the patients who should receive the drug.

It's important to note that no company stood out as a particular offender, according to Dr. Deborah Korenstein, lead author of the study and Associate Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Is Your Doctor Influenced by Slick Ads?

Journal advertising is the most profitable form of drug marketing, with a $5 return for every $1 spent, according to previous research. That's a great return for the companies that advertise, but at what cost to the public health?

Since physicians are actually the ones prescribing the drugs, the fact that so few ads adhere to the guidelines -- and barely even convey basic information necessary for safe prescribing -- is disturbing. Even if they deny it, doctors' prescribing practices are influenced by these ads, Korenstein said via an email interview.

Previous studies have shown that exposure to such ads was associated with less-effective, lower-quality prescribing decisions. "For that reason," Korenstein says, "it seems important that ads contain the relevant information for safe prescribing."

It's officially the FDA's responsibility to make sure pharmaceutical ads adhere to guidelines. However, its $9 million annual budget for compliance pales in comparison to the industry's $58 billion annual marketing spending.

As long as there's money to be made from ads, companies will continue to push the limits of aggressive marketing. That leaves the responsibility for seeing through the flashy ads resting squarely on the shoulders of physicians. Let's just hope that they're not too swayed by slick marketing copy.

Keep tabs on the pharmaceutical companies mentioned in this article by creating a free Fool watchlist.

Motley Fool contributor
Melly Alazraki does not own any shares in the companies listed. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Pfizer.

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Maybe we need to use China as an example....they blamed him for only 10 deaths....very minute compared to what Big Pharma does in the states...

August 26 2011 at 11:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

With a budget of 9 million dollars the FDA can't get the job done. That's not much of a surprise. It is a federal department. What interests me is who discovered that only 18% of the ads are in compliance? Does that entity have a bigger budget? Someone must now know which ads are in compliance and which are not or we would not know that 82% are not compliant. Listen! It is not the budget of the FDA that is the problem. It is the fact that they are in lockstep with the drug companies and as mismanaged as most other federal departments. I can hardly wait for Washington to run our healthcare our healthcare system.

August 25 2011 at 6:33 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

BREAKING NEWS! President Obama has just confirmed that the DC earthquake occurred on a rare and obscure fault-line, apparently known as "Bush's Fault". Obama also announced that the Secret Service and Maxine Waters continue an investigation of the quake's suspicious ties to the Tea Party. Conservatives however have proven that it was caused by the founding fathers rolling over in their graves.

August 25 2011 at 4:09 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
larry & gail

Damn and I thought that TV and the Gov. only told the truth

August 25 2011 at 3:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I can't understand for the life of me why prescription drugs are even allowed to advertise. $58 billion?? No wonder drug costs are rising. I guess the networks and other media love the revenue, but I trust the docs to make the right decisions, not some consumer being fooled.
Also, what does getting a "hard on" have to do with health?

August 25 2011 at 1:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bbramlett's comment
larry & gail

Evidently you have NEVER had a hard on

August 25 2011 at 3:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How about those "snake oil" companies? They sell thousands of baloney products to an unknowing public, totally free of FDA approvals or any kind of proof about their products' efficiency. Just those "free trial" ads ( with good profit just on the shipping/handling charges on worthless pills an stuff) make them billions and nobody questions what's happening.

August 25 2011 at 11:38 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

More people die from prescription drugs than illegal drugs.

August 25 2011 at 11:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to travelergtoo's comment
larry & gail

Give me the stats and where you got them

August 25 2011 at 3:50 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply