That provocative post title doesn’t come from an anti-psychiatry blog, but the liberal, pro-science Alternet, which I’ve been gnawing on all day. Are we really that blasé and self-aware now about being hoodwinked by Big Pharma? Because all I see out there is self-righteous pro-med verses no-med polarization, in both liberal and mental health blogging communities. In real life people don’t say nothing, we’ve become saturated in a pharmaceutical milieu and talking about it is taboo.
This comment from an entertainment website says it all:
I was at a business lunch today. Table of 6 professional adults. The topic turned to politics, then to health care. Problem solving talk, America is prescribed too much medication all agreed. I made the comment that anti-depresent drugs were being pushed to a frighteningly ‘A Scanner Darkly’ level. I made several observations. Silence all around. No comments, because all my co-workers are drugged.
Silence all around, but silence doesn’t just happen, what happended here was silencing. Self-silencing to be exact, since no one forbade anyone from talking, but what stopped them was the social climate, and that is something we all create, whether knowingly or not. I don’t think people feel safe talking about their use or rejection of psychotropics, the silence at that table is happening on a macro plane, and it’s wrong on so many levels. Number one, it’s unhealthy. People take meds for mental health reasons, shameful silence about your life choices is not conducive to mental health.
And it’s not going to change until people know they won’t be disrespected for ingesting psychotropics or refusing to take them. The defensiveness is a barrier to discourse, connection and self-assurance. Social stigma, I get that, but the self-righteous condemnation is new and I don’t understand how we got to this place.
I know one way to get passed defensiveness is to offer reassurance, even though no one will ever ask for it. Reassurance is nice, I’m sure we all like reassurance, but going about it without being hamfisted or condescending — that’s the puzzler. I stared at that comment all day trying to figure out what to say to facilitate the discussion, the writer recognized it had been shut down, that’s a good step; and that he was the reason, ok, but unmedicated people are everywhere, that’s no reason to fear them or call a moratorium on sharing your separate experience.
Now you know everything that went through my head when I stumbled on that curious title How Big Pharma Learned to Seduce You. I wonder if the author is winking at her jaded and knowing readers, since it’s understood we’ve all been duped, (sigh), or is she challenging them to face up to their gullibility?
Gullibility isn’t a bad thing. That too needs to be challenged.
Moving on to the post itself I liked it. A rocking good analysis about the need for congressional oversight of Direct to Consumer advertising:
One of the more effective methods the drug industry developed was animation, and soon it was everywhere. Bees started selling allergy medicine, water balloons suffered bladder control and balls couldn’t bounce because of their depression. When those active people did sleep, they were aided by glowing butterflies and talking beavers. The human body, usually played by actors or represented by artery diagrams, also became more imaginative: a fun house of germs and a play yard of leaking pipes.
There are many reasons for this Disney-like shift in imagery. Cartoon mascots have long been an effective marketing tool. Their lack of gender and racial characteristics give them a wider appeal. Stylistic graphics tend to be more memorable than the acted-out ads, and consumers, perhaps jaded by all those perfect people, are often just more responsive to animated ads. Also, considering the anatomy involved, cartoon mucus and monster toe fungus can be a cute way to straddle the ick factor. They’re currently making a sitcom out of the Geico cavemen. It would not be much of a reach if ‘Meet the Mucinex’s’ were next.
But whether intentional on the pharmaceutical industry’s part or not, the ads also serve a larger purpose of softening their drug’s image. It’s hard to imagine an anthropomorphized ball suffering kidney problems. A pastel butterfly wouldn’t hurt a fly. Bambi’s friends are also especially effective at obfuscating the drugs’ side effects.
Professor Ruth Day, director of the Medical Cognition Laboratory at Duke studied how Flonase’s British bee floats placidly during most of the ad. When it comes to the risks portion of the anti-allergen, however, his wings flap distractingly fast. Combine this with 10 years of DTC-perfected risk disclosures — using a different, more monotone narrator (especially in celebrity endorsements), longer vocabulary (while most drug ads use 6th grade vocab, the side-effects usually use 9th) and accompanied by positive imagery (think lots of recreational activity) — and the cartoon drug’s side effects can be awfully hard to hear.
…The fact is that while public opinion polls rank the drug companies as one of least trusted industries, nurses and pharmacists routinely place as the top two most honest and ethical professions. As skeptical as the public may be of the pharmaceutical industry, we believe in the power of their medicine. DTC ads and drug company PR take advantage of this faith in a way we consumers need to be more alert to.
Consider for a second the shows these ads are sandwiched between: ER, House, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy. As our drug ads grow more infantile, our medical dramas are increasingly graphic. We see the blood. We’re in the operation rooms. We’re in the bodies. In some ways, illness and anatomy have never been so demystified in media.
At the same time, however, the magic surrounding medicine is as great as ever. Most of these shows are a medical who-dunnit. House and his assistants track symptoms to come up with a cause. Grey’s interns take breaks from flirting to figure out a mysterious disease. Occasionally a medicine won’t work but it’s almost always because the hero-doctor misdiagnosed the problem, and by the end of the hour, the real cause is found and the magic pill is administered. These hyper-real shows tap deep into our culture of medical trust and encourage our wonder-drug optimism. The pharmaceutical ads aired beside them benefit by association.
And this is why the questions of responsible advertising and well-articulated risks are so important. Many drugs are great. They are life-saving. But others are not. Many are marginal improvements on cheaper medicines, often with greater risks that disclaimers make easy to tune out. Many are dubious re-dressings for older medications whose patents are running out. This is why the Institute of Medicine came back with such stronger language in 2006, calling for a two-year moratorium on new drug ads and a stronger FDA. This is why the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to avoid DTC regulation require such diligent monitoring — especially when it looks like they need it the least.
Of course the Simpsons say it funny in less than 30 seconds.