American Sociological Association

Medicalization, Direct-to-Consumer Advertising, and Mental Illness Stigma

In late 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new guidelines that allowed pharmaceutical companies to air prescription drug ads on television. These guidelines have expanded the pharmaceutical industry’s role as one of the major “engines” of medicalization. One arena in which there has been a dramatic increase in direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of pharmaceuticals is the marketing of psychotherapeutic drugs, especially for depression. Because medicalization is thought to reduce blame and stigma attached to deviant conditions such as mental illness, the rise of DTCA for depression drugs may be altering public conceptions of mental illness in general and of depression specifically. The authors examine this possibility by comparing changes in attitudes toward persons with schizophrenia (for which no drugs have been advertised on television) and major depression (the focus of considerable advertising) from 1996 to 2006, 1 year before and nearly 10 years after the FDA’s new guidelines. The authors use the Mental Health Modules in the General Social Survey in these years. Contrary to expectations, despite the surge in DTCA they find no changes in stigmatized views of persons with schizophrenia or depression. However, the public’s beliefs about appropriate treatments for mental illness (regardless of disorder type) shifted further toward medical interventions.


Andrew R. Payton and Reggy A. Thoits





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