A Mixed-methods Approach Toward Primetime Television Direct-to-consumer Advertising: Pharmaceutical Fetishism and Critical Analyses of the Commercial Discourse of Health Care

Open Access
Applequist, Janelle
Graduate Program:
Mass Communications
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
January 19, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Matthew Paul Mcallister, Dissertation Advisor
  • Charles Elavsky, Dissertation Advisor
  • Fuyuan Shen, Committee Member
  • Jon F Nussbaum, Committee Member
  • Direct-to-Consumer Advertising
  • DTCA
  • pharmaceutical advertising
  • critical advertising studies
  • pharmaceutical fetishism
Direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) includes any promotional materials (i.e., print advertisements, televised ads, websites, etc.) for prescription drugs that target a consumer audience. Brand association with pharmaceutical drugs in the United States is high, particularly in regard to the medium of broadcast television. Beyond informing consumers about pharmaceutical drugs on the market, these advertisements additionally model for consumers that these prescriptions should serve as forms of health intervention in their lives. This dissertation is designed to achieve several goals: (1) to replicate previous studies of DTCA (2) to examine levels of medicalization and pharmaceuticalization within these ads and the potential resulting influence upon society, and (3) to apply elements of critical advertising studies to direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertisements, including the prevalence of what this project will call “pharmaceutical fetishism” in such ads (i.e., the portrayal of DTC advertisements as increasing happiness or control over one’s life and how this term relates to “commodity fetishism”; how prescription drugs are glorified as a form of positive consumption). Using a multi-method approach to DTC advertisements which include quantitative content analysis, qualitative textual analysis, political economy, and a case study of a particularly notable example of DTCA, this dissertation will argue that the symbolic complexity of television DTC advertisements not only attempts to influence how effective these drugs seem to be, but also how drugs are used as key interventions in life, and how drugs may solve a host of personal and social problems. At the same time, the way that people are portrayed in DTC advertisements also has implications for the mediated representation of gender, age, class and other social categories. This dissertation found four major themes that are representative of the mixed-methods analyses chapters (four, five, and six). The first common theme features a continuation, and increase, of DTC advertisements undermining their informational function by emphasizing overwhelmingly positive outcomes of drug use, decreasing the educational content that focuses on health ailments particular drugs are designed to treat, and discouraging serious considerations of risk factors and other treatment options. The second major theme to result from this research involves the use of positive emotional appeals in DTCA. The third, and arguably most notable, theme found in this research is the practice of pharmaceutical advertisements explicitly utilizing advertising as a means of presenting prescription drugs as cures for more than just health conditions. Drugs are advertised in a way that presents them as having the added benefit of selling a particular lifestyle to individuals -- one that emphasizes happiness, successful relationships, nuclear family activities, and personal fulfillment. Finally, the fourth major theme to result from this research is the ways in which DTC advertisements perpetuate normalized conceptions of particular representations, featuring characters that portray stereotypical gender roles, youthfulness even in cases of being older, heteronormative relationships, familial relationships as being central to health, and patients as being autonomous from their physicians.