The Food and Drug Administration will consider the use of animation in drug ads, the agency announced, and whether such commercials might improperly impact consumer perception of the risks associated with the medication being advertised.

"It is important to examine whether animation in drug ads inflates efficacy perceptions, minimizes risk, or otherwise hinders comprehension of drug risks and benefits," the agency explained in a Federal Register notice. "Understanding how issues of animation and personification affect perceptions of both risks and benefits can inform FDA regarding how prescription drug risk and benefit information is processed."

Animated characters can be fictional or nonfictional, human or non-human, the FDA said, and despite variations in form, "are often used to grab attention, increase ad memorability, and enhance persuasion to ultimately drive behavior."

For example, animation has been used in drug ads to symbolize the disease, the sufferer, the mode of administration, and the mechanism of action. Drug companies may use a personified non-human character to illustrate the medical condition or drug attributes in a visually memorable way, the agency said. The limited studies that have examined the use of animation found such characters "led to much stronger brand recall and brand association scores."

"The positive effects these animations induce might transfer to the brands being advertised," the FDA wrote, and personifying animated characters may interfere with message communication. "It is also possible that animated characters may lead to lower perceived risk by minimizing or camouflaging side effects."

To better understand the impact of animation, the agency will conduct a two-part experimental study "to examine how a type of animation and non-human personification in drug ads influence consumer comprehension, processing, and perception of risk and benefit information." The FDA will look at these strategies across two different medical conditions—chronic dry eye (relatively few risks and side effects) and psoriasis (very long, serious lists of risks and side effects)—to evaluate if the findings are consistent across patient populations and medications with different levels of risk.

To read the FDA's Federal Register notice about the study, click here.

Why it matters: The FDA's discussion of its study plans did not touch upon how its findings will be used, but drug companies should keep a close eye on the agency's efforts. Depending on what the research reveals about the impact of animation and animated characters on consumer perception, drug manufacturers could be facing new regulations or agency guidance down the road.