Advertisements released by U.S. cancer centers in magazines and on TV may be delivering the wrong message, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh. While researchers can’t verify the exact effect these ads have, they submit that consumers are at risk of being misinformed.

The grueling battle with cancer is one many people undergo with little knowledge already at-hand. Popular outlets such as TV and magazines may prove unhelpful in that regard; however, as the recent review suggests, these ads focus more on emotion than on facts. Consumers gain little information about treatment costs, risks, or even its benefits in concrete, quantitative terms. If the ads were anything to go on, the data suggests, patients would hope for survival rather than evaluate their chances.

"This is a first step," senior author Yael Schenker told Health Day. "An important next step would be to look at whether there are effects on patients."

Of the 102 cancer centers that ran ads in print or on TV in 2012, 88 percent promoted cancer treatment; 18 percent discussed cancer screening; and 13 percent discussed supportive services, such as psychological therapy or nutritional counseling. But despite the high number of centers selling treatment, the ads were light on logistics. Only two percent of the ads talked about treatment benefits in terms of numbers, and only five percent mentioned costs.

Worse, despite the nearly 50 percent of ads that offered patient testimonials, none purported to offer the cases as “typical” — sapping the testimonial of much, if not all, of its use value. And still keeping all of this in mind, the findings can’t account for how true or effective the facts that were given actually are.

Emotionally-charged messages aren’t all bad. Cancer is a complex, persisting disease that drains a person more than just physically. There’s genuine value in the emotional reassurance that a person’s case isn’t unique, Dr. Gregory Abel, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, argues in a related editorial. In addition, cancer centers traditionally treat more than one type of cancer. Offering hard data on survival rates could dilute a center’s actual competence if it doesn’t target just one. So, hard numbers may be misguided.

One solution, to get rid of the slipperiness, is to ban cancer center commercials altogether, Abel writes. However, “this advertising may have a beneficial cancer-normalizing and destigmatizing effect that a ban would eliminate.” Before any large policy decisions are made, Abel advocates for more data. Likewise, he and Schenker both believe that if the public wants to get information about cancer treatments, turning to television commercials and magazine ads isn’t necessarily ideal.

A better solution may have been under patients’ noses the whole time. "You can talk with a doctor you trust," Schenker suggested. "That's a good place to start."

 

Source: Vater L, Donohue J, Arnold R, et al. What Are Cancer Centers Advertising to the Public?: A Content Analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2014.