Thursday Thoughts #37: Pervasive Drug Advertisement

If you believe in negative suggestions making you sick – don’t watch the advertisements on TV. I noticed for a while that ads for drugs and healthcare products are pretty prevalent on primetime TV – not that I watch a lot. One evening I did a semi-scientific experiment and took notes. I wrote down all what consecutive advertisement segments aired in two shows. Every single break hailed at least one healthcare product or drug. It started with an antidepressant, followed by anti-allergy medication, a heart failure drug, an anti-opioid-induced constipation drug, migraine medication, and Alzheimer drugs. These ads vividly reminded me about the suffering of the condition, supplemented my snack with thoughts of irritable bowel syndrome, and cheerily alerted me in very rapid-fire speech of all possible side effects of the advertised meds, such as breathing problems, swollen eyes, blurry eyes, tears in the stomach, ulcers, loss of appetite, bruising, muscle pain, nausea, infections, and even death.

Other companies may have given up advertisements on TV. Looking at the mix of the typical 4-7 segments per break, those who still announced their goods dealt mainly in internet/phone services, sports, cars, banking, insurance, real estate and with some food/drink and clothing ads as well as advertisement for their own shows. Sensitized to the topic by now, I still check in on and off – and invariably there is at least one ailment-related ad per break.

Are TV watchers really that sick? Or the population as a whole? There may be the implicit suggestion to make us believe so and that salvation is in drugs. Ironically, it is now made very hard for sales representatives of drug or device companies to even get to see staff in a hospital. One rationale is that medical personnel should not be induced to prescribe unnecessary drugs or use certain more expensive products (good reason). It also helps the administrators to keep new developments from being shared with staff directly so that they can keep focusing on the bottom line with big discounted contracts not necessarily containing the best or newest products (bad reason). One can understand that this leaves the only way that companies can get their products out efficiently: through direct appeal to the consumer.

What really galls me is the ad of a drug to help with opioid-induced constipation. It shows a man in a hard hat on a construction site. At the end of the skit he walks with a happy smile towards what looks like his truck. On heavy-duty opioid drugs one shouldn’t be on a constructions site and one definitely shouldn’t be driving! To make opioid-addiction look that nonchalant is pretty irresponsible. I don’t want to get myself or anybody else killed in traffic or hazardous work sites by people who are made to believe that this is all normal and just fine to do so as suggested on TV. This is basically advertising for the opioid crisis with its tremendous cost for the individuals and society.

In many other countries it is illegal to advertise drugs on TV or directly to the consumer. A recent article in the Boston Globe indicated that momentum is now building to ban the practice in the US as well. While the industry players think they can keep greatly increasing their sales by convincing us more and more that we are all sick and need to talk more about it, there is a built-in remedy. We may prefer to talk about a great beer commercial after the Superbowl, rather than about stomach pain and bowel movements, even if the ad tells us that this is what we should do so more often.

I would think people watch TV to relax and be distracted from their daily troubles. A bombardment of illness messages and subliminal suggestions of blurred vision, depression, death and throwing up disturbs this pleasure of it, particularly when nibbling on one’s Doritos. Are advertisers surprised that the answer is to just turn all ads off?

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