When you go to the pharmacy or big-box retailer do you choose brand-name or off-brand generic over the counter medications and pills even with the same active ingredients?
This kind of thing enthralls me. I love you NPR.
Why do people choose what they choose when given the option of the same product in different packaging?
Some of you are SO. INSISTENT.
"I MUST HAVE THIS BRAND!"
"It is the ONLY ONE!"
My line of thinking (…when making that choice in the aisle) goes to:
- Is is *exactly the same?*
- Does it have the same efficacy?
- Is the generic brand safe and effective?
When side-by-side store branded pills versus big brands aren't all that different, same active ingredients, similar labeling, the only thing that stands out to many of us is the pricing. So why do you choose the more expensive product, if you do?
If I am being completely honest, I don't buy off-brand super inexpensive pills from big box retailers like Wal-Mart (…or a Dollar Store, shiver!) because quite frankly I am terrified at the potential of an eighty-eight cent price point and where THAT came from. It's not that I am a brand snob, but just, no. I read the packaging of every side-by-side product and if the ingredients match by percentage and you can see the source — I do not mind paying less per pill.
I will admit for some things I have brandsnobbery (…but even so much less lately and not really. I have even downgraded to generic huge tubs of coffee. RIP Starbucks at home, entirely. Thanks to blogging not being so, uh, lucrative, don't quit your dayjobs!) But not for over the counter medications. I bought approximately three boxes of generic gas medications, gut-fail medications and the like prior-to and during my trip to Portland last week because of desperation and it worked and kept me from ROTTING ON A PLANE THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
Matthew Gentzkow, an economist at the University of Chicago's Booth school, recently tried to answer this question. Along with a few colleagues, Gentzkow set out to test a hypothesis: Maybe people buy the brand-name pills because they just don't know that the generic version is basically the same thing.
"We came up with what is probably the simplest idea you've ever heard of," Gentzkow says. "Let's just look and see if people who are well-informed about these things still pay extra to buy brands."
In other words, do doctors, nurses and pharmacists pay extra for Tylenol instead of acetaminophen, or buy Advil instead of ibuprofen?
Gentzkow and his colleagues looked at a huge dataset of over 66 million shopping trips and found that, "lo and behold, nurses, doctors and pharmacists are much less likely to buy brands than average consumers," Gentzkow says. (Their findings are written up here.)
Pharmacists, for example, bought generics 90 percent of the time, compared with about 70 percent of the time for the overall population. "In a world where everyone was as well-informed as pharmacist or nurse, the market share of the brands would be much, much smaller than it is today," Gentzkow says.
I asked several people who had a bottle of Bayer or Tylenol or Advil at home why they'd bought the brand name. One guy told me he didn't want his wife to think he was cheap. A woman told me Bayer reminded her of her grandmother. Another guy, a lawyer, said he just didn't want to spend the time to figure it out, and decided it was worth the extra couple bucks to buy the brand.
In general, we often buy brands when we lack information — when, like that lawyer, we decide it's easier to spend the extra money rather than try to figure out what's what.
Jesse Shapiro, one of the co-authors of the headache paper, told me he buys Heinz ketchup rather than the generic brand. He likes Heinz. He thinks it's better than the generic, but he's not sure. "I couldn't promise that, if you blindfolded me, I could tell them apart," he says.