Are you sick and tired of prescription-drug commercials? You know, the ads on TV for drugs to treat arthritis, erectile dysfunction or overactive bladder.

People think these commercials are aimed at patients. In fact, they’re called direct-to-consumer advertising, abbreviated DTC by those in the know. But here’s a dirty little secret: These ads also affect physicians.

There was a time when the pharmaceutical industry fielded an army of sales representatives who visited doctors’ offices in person. They would bring little gifts, free drug samples and lunch, and in exchange would get a few minutes of face time with the physician to promote new drugs.

The system worked extraordinarily well for drug companies for decades. Even though the cost of maintaining thousands of reps traveling the country was astronomical, so were sales.

But today’s doctors often are far too busy rushing from patient to patient to spend much, if any, time with a sales representative. Most pharmaceutical firms have laid off large numbers of reps in the past decade. They have shifted marketing resources to other avenues, such as Web and TV.

One drug-industry insider told us that a new TV drug ad resulted in increased prescriptions within days. This period of time is so short that patients would not have had time to make appointments to see a doctor. The conclusion the company drew was that the ads were very effective at reaching physicians and stimulating new prescriptions.

Despite the extraordinary cost of making and airing such TV commercials, the companies reach both physicians and patients at the same time.

The rewards are handsome. Some experts estimate that for every dollar spent on DTC ads, the company earns back more than $4 (Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, June 2003).

We have polled groups of consumers at public talks, in this newspaper column and online through our website, and have yet to find enthusiasm for DTC drug commercials. Patients dislike them, and doctors said the same.

Even though these spots frequently include dire warnings about side effects, the voice-over usually goes so fast that it is difficult to comprehend the significance of the words.

The message also is obscured because it doesn’t match the visual images on the screen. People may be smiling and having fun while the announcer suggests that the drug could cause thoughts of suicide, confusion, uncontrollable muscle movements that could become permanent or high blood sugar that could lead to coma or death.

The commercials are so sophisticated in their structure that most viewers won’t notice that they have emphasized the drug’s benefit and downplayed the risk. Before asking your doctor if any drug you have seen on TV is “right for you,” do your homework. Look up the drug at sites that are not controlled by the drug company. At, for example, you will find personal stories from individuals who have tried the drug and reported their actual experiences. This may provide a more balanced perspective.

If you are fed up with DTC commercials, why not let your congressional representative know? The U.S. and New Zealand are the only countries that permit this sort of advertising.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them via their website: