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Cancer Ads Rely on Emotions more than Facts, Study Reports

Update Date: May 27, 2014 02:08 PM EDT

Advertisements are meant to evoke emotion in the viewers. In a new study, researchers examined just how often people used emotion when creating cancer advertisements. The team found that cancer center advertisements relied more heavily on emotions as opposed to facts.

"This study only analyzed the content of the ads," explained senior researcher Dr. Yael Schenker, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. "This is a first step. An important next step would be to look at whether there are effects on patients."

In this study, the researchers analyzed over 400 advertisements that aired throughout the United States in 2012. The advertisements were for 102 cancer centers and had also showed up in consumer magazines. The advertisements were all related to cancer treatments and care.

The team found that the majority of the advertisements used emotional appeals, such as patient testimonials. The advertisements also utilized general messages about hope and survival. Only around two percent of the advertisements had tried to tally up the potential benefits and side effects from receiving care at the center. Five percent mentioned costs.

Overall, 88 percent of the advertisements had promoted a type of cancer treatment. 18 percent had discussed cancer screenings and 13 percent talked about using supportive services, such as psychological therapy or nutrition counseling. The researchers concluded that these types of advertisements could be misleading.

"The next step would be to ask a cohort of cancer patients if they are aware of cancer center advertisements, and try to assess if their exposure to the ads has affected their feelings and behavior," said Dr. Gregory Abel, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Abel, who was not involved in this study, noted that since these advertisements could be misleading, regulators might consider banning them. But this type of regulation might also lead to negative side effects. Abel was a part of a previous study published in 2011 that found that only 11 percent of patients receiving treatment felt that cancer center advertisements should be banned.

"Just be aware that these ads focus on emotional appeal. They're not going to give you balanced information on treatments, risks and costs," Schenker said according to Medical Xpress. "You can talk with a doctor you trust. That's a good place to start."

The study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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