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Cancer Center Ads Emotional, Not Informative

Emotional reactions to cancer center consumer advertisements may lead to unrealistic expectations and inappropriate treatments, according to a study done at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and published in May 2014 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. A release from the American College of Physicians notes that in response to a rapidly increasing demand for cancer care in the United States, a growing number of cancer centers are marketing their clinical services directly to patients through consumer advertising.

The researchers conducted a rigorous content review of 409 television and magazine advertisements for 102 cancer centers to characterize their informational and emotional content. Internet advertisements were not included.

The team assessed each ad for types of clinical services promoted, information provided about those services, use of emotional appeals, and the use of patient testimonials and disclaimers. The analysis showed that the majority of cancer centers (88 percent) promoted cancer treatments rather than screening (18 percent) or supportive services (13 percent).

The article reports that the ads tended to promote benefits of advertised therapies more often than risks, with no specific data offered to support claims. Eighty-five percent of advertisements used emotional appeals that seemed to equate treatment with cure, and more often focused a cure (85 percent) rather than comfort, quality of life, or patient-centered care (43 percent). Patient testimonials were featured in about half of cancer center ads and the majority of those (79 percent) focused on stories about survival or cure. The authors suggest that cancer center ads that evoke emotions of fear and hope may lead patients to pursue care that is either unnecessary or unsupported by scientific evidence.

The research was primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health. The authors wrote as their conclusion: “Clinical advertisements by cancer centers frequently promote cancer therapy with emotional appeals that evoke hope and fear while rarely providing information about risks, benefits, costs, or insurance availability. Further work is needed to understand how these advertisements influence patient understanding and expectations of benefit from cancer treatments.”

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