Sunday morning. Wake up, stagger out of bed/off the lawn and turn on the U.S. television news.
Doom. Despair. Dysfunction. Death.
And that’s just the pharmaceutical commercials.
Try it yourself. Watch CBS Sunday Morning and count the prescription drug ads. They line up one after another, tut-tutting as though they actually care, but really just probing for weak spots.
“Do you suffer from coronary heart disease?”
No, it’s just a cough.
Well, I’m still a little upset about the whole Lance Armstrong thing…
Only when I sleep on the lawn.
“If so, consult your doctor: Zip-Loxx may be for you.”
(Marketing experts say consumers like lots of Z’s and X’s in their drug names.)
It’s at this point that the camera cuts away from a close-up of a gaunt, grim-lipped man (Lance?) to show a blond woman and a golden retriever romping in slo-mo through a field of nuns, or whatever.
Then the good part starts, delivered in the confidential murmur of a man warning you that your fly is open: “Side-effects can include water retention, shortness of breath, shortness of temper, loss of hearing, loss of wallet, the shakes, the shingles, ripped lips, broken dreams, an unsettling secretion from the ears, and whatever it is that causes dogs to drag their bottoms on the carpet. Do not take Zip-Loxx if you are, could become or ever were pregnant, or own a motor vehicle. Stop taking Zip-Loxx immediately if your tongue combusts or you feel a sudden urge to shoot a Beatle.”
This is really just a U.S. phenomenon, as Canadian commercials for prescription medication are not allowed to say what the drug’s benefits are or what condition it is meant to treat. It’s why those smirking Viagra and Cialis spots never say what the pills are actually for, just offer images of abandoned lawn mowers and half-hung laundry.
Those same restrictions applied in the U.S. until 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration loosened the rules. After that, pharmaceutical companies were allowed to extol the benefits of a drug as long as they also disclosed the major risks — which is why every ad comes with a list of side-effects that reads like a Stephen King novel.
Now, if I were a marketing guru, I might try to dissuade my client from airing Sunday morning TV spots that include such phrases as — and you might want to skip this paragraph if you’re eating breakfast — “yellowing of the skin,” “enlarged or painful breasts,” or “passing gas with oily discharge,” all real-life examples.
Ditto for warnings of “suicidal thoughts in teens,” “signs of early puberty,” “uncontrollable muscle movements,” “increased gambling, sexual or other intense urges,” “swelling of the face” and the always popular “liver problems, some fatal.”
This only proves why I’m not a marketing guru: The shift to direct-to-consumer advertising was a smashing success (if by smashing success you’re talking about those people who cracked up their cars while “sleep-driving,” one of the documented side-effects).
Estimates of Big Pharma’s annual spending on television advertising in the U.S. range from $2.4 billion to $5 billion. Retail prescription drug spending rose to $263 billion in 2011, patients demanding a pill for every ill. Half of all Americans will have used a prescription drug in the past month. Bet even Lance had a seven-day pill organizer for his performance-enhancing whatnots.
And while Canada might be with the rest of the world in banning such commercials, we still see and become influenced by the ones on American channels. In the decade ending 2007, only the U.S. outpaced Canada’s growth in per-capita drug spending.
Perhaps we should just give in, loosen our rules, too. Better yet, require lists of potential side-effects when advertising all manner of products, not just pharmaceuticals
Remember that British Columbians troop to the polls in May. Political ads could come with a warning: Could cause anxiety, nausea or the sudden onset of HST. Contact your doctor if you have an election lasting longer than four months.
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