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How to market diet pills: Prescription and over-the-counter pills may increase unhealthy behavior

Study finds that the more effective a drug is perceived to be, the more likely the user is to engage in risky behavior

University of Chicago Press Journals

Glaxo Smith Kline's Alli™, the first FDA-approved over-the-counter weight loss pill, hits shelves nationwide this Friday. Whether or not it succeeds depends a large part on its multilingual, multi-million dollar marketing campaign. A new study by Wharton professors and doctors at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine provides applicable new insight into consumer thinking about health remedies. A fat absorption pill, Alli has labeled itself as an over the counter non-prescription "drug," but its marketing places heavy emphasis on its role as a supplement to a healthy lifestyle - the sort of remedy marketing, the researchers argue, that promote the pill's chances of working by encouraging complementary healthy behaviors such as exercise.

When consumers are diagnosed with a health condition such as obesity, they don't immediately trade fries for carrot sticks or start taking brisk walks after dinner. In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, Lisa Bolton and Americus Reed, both marketing professors at Wharton School of Business, and Kevin G. Volpp and Katrina Armstrong, both professors at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, found that consumers who contemplate taking a prescription or over-the-counter drug for their condition become more likely to engage in bad habits like junk food and a sedentary lifestyle.

This "boomerang effect" happens for two reasons. First, drug marketing undermines motivation to live a healthy lifestyle - 'why bother eating low-fat foods when a drug exists to fight fat for me"' Drugs also appear to weaken consumers' beliefs in their ability to live a healthy lifestyle by eating right and exercising.

Interestingly, in a series of experiments and test groups, the researchers found that supplements did not have this same "boomerang effect" on a healthy lifestyle: regardless of how effective the supplement actually is, consumer perceptions of supplements are that they require "supplementary" behavior in order to work.

"People appear to choose supplements almost as a matter of faith rather than science," Bolton says. "They perceive these products as 'natural' and figure they can't hurt. And our research suggests that they don't -- at least in terms of healthy lifestyle intentions."

These findings add to the growing debate over the regulation of drug and supplement markets and the role of direct-to-consumer advertising. Indeed, Professor Reed feels that the Alli marketing campaign - which emphasizes the pill's role in a healthy lifestyle that also includes menu planning and exercise - may soon lead other pharmaceutical companies to follow suit and play down the effectiveness of their products.

Reed says that this more honest approach to the marketing of these kinds of products may not be what consumers want to hear, but is promising because it is so different than the typical approach used to market these kinds of products. "Usually, they are positioned as effective as some kind of easy, magic solution. This product is up front in educating consumers that the road to long term weight loss goals requires hard work and a long term commitment. Its effectiveness is maximized in conjunction with other behaviors."

Bolton cautiously adds however, that: "Consumers won't buy the drug if it's seen as ineffective. But, on the other hand, the drug may have unintended consequences if it's seen as too effective (because of the boomerang effect on a healthy lifestyle). So marketing these remedies requires a delicate balancing act."

Time will tell if Alli has the right balance, but the present research suggests that Glaxo Smith Kline is moving in the right direction to protect consumer welfare. "Even highly educated consumers and consumers who have otherwise acknowledged the importance of a healthy lifestyle are nonetheless susceptible to the boomerang effect for drugs," write the authors. "Thus drug marketing - and even supplement marketing - should be treated with caution lest such products seduce consumers into treating them as get-out-of-jail-free cards."


Founded in 1974, the Journal of Consumer Research publishes scholarly research that describes and explains consumer behavior. The primary thrust of JCR is academic, rather than managerial, with topics ranging from micro-level processes (e.g., brand choice) to more macro-level issues (e.g., the development of materialistic values). Empirical, theoretical, and methodological articles spanning fields such as psychology, marketing, sociology, economics, and anthropology are featured in this interdisciplinary bi-monthly.

Lisa E. Bolton, Americus Reed, II, Kevin G. Volpp, and Katrina Armstrong, "How Does Drug and Supplement Marketing Affect a Healthy Lifestyle"" Journal of Consumer Research: 35:2.

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