Why do people choose expensive branded drugs over cheap generics?

by Leslie Hallam

Course Director, Psychology of Advertising Masters Programme, Lancaster University

The Australian federal court has accused Reckitt Benckiser of misleading consumers. The UK-based company has been marketing products in their Nurofen range for specific types of pain. The truth is, they all contain the same active ingredient: an analgesic drug called ibuprofen. Ibuprofen can’t be targeted at any specific pains.

No real harm done, you might think, except that these products were sold for twice the price of “standard” Nurofen.

Profiteering or just brilliant marketing?

While there may be some value in allowing people to shop by symptom, rather than active ingredient, the price seems inappropriately high. But perhaps not high enough to warrant the media outrage expressed. Is the real issue that we’re squeamish about companies making a profit from our suffering?

A time-starved generation of “baby boomers” convinced that “we’re worth it”, together with the entitled narcissism of the “millennials”, believe that when we’re in pain, we want the absolute best thing there is to treat it, quickly, with no compromise. As well as the simplified choices of shopping by symptom, products seemingly designed to treat our exact discomforts (period pain, headaches, hangovers) are likely to be seen as more effective than a general purpose painkiller.

Also, we believe in science – and particularly medical science – as a credible, rational source of authority; hence all those ads featuring men (usually men) in white coats. Surely these patricians wouldn’t mislead us, just for profit?

Does the court’s decision really benefit us?

The Australian federal court’s protective policing may benefit the consumer in the short term, but there is a flip side. We are likely to be reassured by this that future claims will be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”, making us more likely to give them credence, rather than taking a look at the small print and thinking for ourselves a little – the last thing that most brands would want.

So far, so heinous. Such claims - identical products, different promises, and different prices - seem worthy of an Apprentice facing the boardroom wrath of Lord Sugar for shady dealing on a market stall.

However, imagine for a moment that you’re a GP in private practice. Concerned parents of a six-year-old in pain bring her to see you. With no underlying trauma or organic condition to treat, you decide that the pain will certainly stop after a few days. A mild analgesic will help a little in the meantime, but the effects will be significantly boosted if the little patient can be convinced that her medicine is made specially to treat her tummy-ache. Even more so, if her loving parents also believe this. And, for her parents to really believe, you will need to charge them many times what they would pay for the same drug at a chemist. What price truth then?

This is expensive, so it’s going to work. www.shutterstock.com

The power of belief

Numerous studies have demonstrated the potency of the placebo effect. So, although at face value it seems unfair to market an identical ibuprofen product for specific aliments or to different consumer segments (leading perhaps to multiple purchases where one would have sufficed), there may be an argument that doing so can genuinely increase its effectiveness in the areas specified through the sheer power of the belief.

While “rational” commentators can decry this as foolish, the science would suggest it works. Further, because of our tendency to alter our views to reduce cognitive dissonance (the mental discomfort we feel when we hold two or more conflicting ideas or values), by charging a premium for such “targeted” products, we – the consumer – may well amplify any placebo effect present in order to justify our purchase (as when people claim fantastic efficacy for expensive branded wrinkle creams, while thinking the “Lidl equivalent” to be ineffective).

Although there is nothing in the public domain to suggest any noble purpose on the part of Reckitt Benckiser, an unintended effect of removing this “targeted” range may be to leave some consumers less able to treat their pain. Placebos add a tint of grey to ethical considerations in medical treatment. Greater leeway might be of genuine value, beyond just profit, in how some products are described or positioned. Rather than simply exploiting our fears and playing to our baser instincts, perhaps effective marketing, in this arena at least, could contribute something to the sum of human happiness.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Added 14.05.2018
During the first century of modern art, Paris was a magnet for ambitious artists from all over Europe. Remarkably, the current exhibition at Paris’ Petit Palais tells us that “Between 1789 and 1914, over a thousand Dutch artists traveled to France.” Prominent among these were Ary Scheffer, Johan Jongkind, Jacob Maris, Kees van Dongen. But of course most prominent were Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
Added 10.05.2018
The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.
Added 08.05.2018
The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.
Added 05.05.2018

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century.

Added 01.05.2018
Quote from the article: "Who is talking about how globalized the world was between 1880 and 1914 -- until war broke out and fascists subsequently determined the course of history -- and the parallels between then and now? Globalization always had a down side, and was never meant to last forever -- but the gurus chose not to talk about it. It is always just a question of time until economic nationalism reappears, but the gurus have done a poor job of addressing the nexus between economics and politics, and its impact on business, which is the real story."
Added 29.04.2018
"......if we did manage to stop the kind of ageing caused by senescent cells using telomerase activation, we could start devoting all our efforts into tackling these additional ageing processes. There’s every reason to be optimistic that we may soon live much longer, healthier lives than we do today."
Added 29.04.2018
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax in order to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own. New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Added 25.04.2018
Female doctors show more empathy than male doctors. They ask their patients more questions, including questions about emotions and feelings, and they spend more time talking to patients than their male colleagues do. Some have suggested that this might make women better doctors. It may also take a terrible toll on their mental health.
Added 25.04.2018
The English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is arguably America's first great landscape painter - the founder of the Hudson River School, the painter who brought a romantic sensibility to the American landscape, and sought to preserve the rapidly disappearing scenery with panoramas that invoke the divinity in nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings" is an astounding exhibition featuring a painter of extraordinary power and vision, underscoring his environmentalism and the deep sense of loss that pervades many works as he reflects on deforestation, the intrusion of the railroad, and the vanishing beauty of the untrammeled wilderness.
Added 23.04.2018
Quantitative evidence from three independent sources — auction prices, textbook illustrations, and counts of paintings included in retrospective exhibitions — all pointed to the fact that some important modern artists made their greatest work late in their careers — Cézanne, for example, in his 60s, and Kandinsky and Rothko in their 50s. But the same evidence indicated that other important artists produced their greatest work very early — Picasso, Johns, and Stella, for example, all in their 20s. Why was this was the case: why did great artists do their best work at such different stages of their careers? I couldn’t answer this question until I understood what makes an artist’s work his or her best.
Added 19.04.2018

People of all ages are at risk from diseases brought on by loneliness, new data has revealed.

Added 09.04.2018

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end.

Added 26.03.2018
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
Added 15.03.2018

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking.

Added 03.03.2018

A lack of essential nutrients is known to contribute to the onset of poor mental health in people suffering from anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and

Added 27.02.2018

Mindfulness is big business, worth in excess of US$1.0 billion in the US alone and linked – somewhat paradoxically – to an expanding range of must have products.

Added 23.02.2018

Reverend Jonathan Arnold, dean of divinity at Magdalen college, Oxford, has written about the “seeming paradox that, in today’s so-called secular society, sacred choral music is as

Added 16.02.2018

Orson Welles was a flamboyant showman: Andrew Sarris observed that “Every Welles film is designed around the massive presence of the artist as autobiographer…The Wellesian cinema is the cinema of magic and marvels, and everything, especially its prime protagonist,

Added 08.02.2018

Almost all of us have experienced loneliness at some point. It is the pain we have felt following a breakup, perhaps the loss of a loved one, or a move away from home. We are vulnerable to feeling lonely at any point in our lives.