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Branded medication – a placebo effect?


A recent ruling by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority upheld 18 complaints which argued that a TV advert for Nurofen Joint and Back, which ran in April 2016, was misleading.

The ASA noted that viewers of the advert (which showed a woman suffering from back pain experiencing direct relief when she took Nurofen Joint and Back) were “likely to understand that Nurofen Joint and Back was specifically designed to relieve back and joint pain, rather than pain generally”, and that they would presume that the product had “a special mechanism or contained an active ingredient which made it especially effective for back and joint pain in comparison to other painkillers”.

Despite on-screen text noting that the product was also used for ‘other aches and pains’, the ASA concluded that this wasn’t enough to counter the impression that Nurofen Joint and Back did only and exactly what it said on the tin.

Branded vs generic

‘Fair enough’, you might say. But the ruling has prompted an interesting opinion piece by actor and comedian David Mitchell (of Peep Show fame) published in The Guardian earlier this week. Mitchell notes that despite chemists such as Boots selling unbranded versions of ibuprofen and paracetamol, those who opt for a familiar brand are doing more than parting with more of their hard-earned money. He quotes the book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, but there are a number of studies which show that in many cases, buying a well known brand can act as a placebo effect, even if the active ingredients are doing the same job as a generic version.

An article in the Independent last December quoted Neal Patel, spokesperson for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society as saying: “The well-known placebo effect plays a part in improving pain relief when people believe the medicine they are taking will work for their pain. The placebo effect is one reason why people may choose to buy a more expensive product even though it may be identical to cheaper versions”.

Tackling direct

The company behind Nurofen, RB UK Commercial, has been quoted as saying that: “Research has shown that nine in 10 people search for products to treat specific symptoms, such as joint and back pain, and seven in 10 say pain-specific packs help them decide which product is best for their needs,” so, as Mitchell argues, choosing a product that consumers think will tackle their particular pain directly could make them feel a little better before they even consume it.

Generally speaking, branded medication costs more as companies seek to recoup the cost of taking the product to market, and costs associated with marketing and advertising. If you’re unsure about whether a particular medication is suitable for you, or you’re looking for a cheaper generic version, speak to your doctor or pharmacist.

When not writing about all things personal finance, You & Your Money's editor Conor Forrest enjoys reading, football and getting lost in an ocean of Wikipedia articles.