Things I Don’t Like About Television, Episode 11: Drug Commercials

Originally, this was going to be about pharmaceutical commercials, but since I’ve changed the title, this topic can go two ways, actually.

Of course, I have come across so many commercials that got on my nerves over the years. Some have been repeated ad nauseum. Some have terrible music and/or singing. There are commercials which make it obvious that they were cheaply made. There are those sleazy commercials advertising Girls Gone Wild or sex hotlines.

And then there are drug commercials. I consider pharmaceutical commercials to be among the worst forms of advertising. The same goes for anti-drug commercials. Pharmaceutical commercials will still inspire most of my ire, though.

Why I Loathe Pharmaceutical Commercials

I never liked these commercials to be quite honest. First, they were commercials and only a few at a time can even elicit positive responses from me. Beyond that, when I sat down and really thought about it, there are at now at least five reasons this form of advertising bothers me.

  • Pharmaceuticals themselves are overabundant. It seems like ever since Viagra was introduced, there have been more and more drugs being rushed out into the market.
  • The drugs often come with some serious side effects. Half a commercial can be taken up by the narrator reading off a list of them over a scene of some middle-aged person or Senior citizen riding a bike or walking through a park. Sometimes death is listed as a side effect. The commercial should end there.
  • The amount of general information released to the public is very limited. Each new drug advertisement makes it harder for the viewer to understand the purpose of the drug. I have viewed pharmaceutical commercials with scenes that don’t begin to explain what the drugs are for. For example, when Ambien was first introduced, I was never able to guess that it was for insomnia before learning that it was. Try to guess what Lunesta is for, because the tranquil butterfly will throw you off. And you know these drugs come with side effects that are not even listed in the ads, but these can be found at the end of a maze on a company’s website.
  • These drug commercials themselves are unnatural. Really, they are and more so than the Veteran’s insurance commercials that air from time to time. In particular, I’m thinking about a pair of commercials that aired some time ago. A woman was talking to her friends — once in a club scene — about the benefits and side effects of a certain drug and she was acting as the narrator. It just struck me as an unrealistic conversation among girlfriends.
  • These commercials can be downright creepy. Just yesterday, I just saw a commercial for Belsomra. It has been around since 2015, but this is the first time I had seen it. Anyway, there were two words, “Sleep” and “Wake,” that were transformed into pets. What the heck?! That seriously creeped my out.

More about the Side Effects

Often when pharmaceutical commercials come on, it will sound like this:

Do you suffer from anxiety? Do you pee yourself whenever you are involved in a car crash? Buy Woudofudsofjdsaoiaxille. Side effects include [explosive] diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, cardiac arrest, death…

I know that the advertisers list the side effects for legal purposes (and still the ads might not be totally up front), but the long lists of side effects weigh down the commercials — and more importantly beg the question why certain drugs are even on the market. The side effects — particularly death — outweigh any supposed benefit the companies promise to give to the consumer, which in turn will lead to drug recalls in the future. Why are drug companies even allowed to push these products in the first place?

Seriously, how did the FDA approve these drugs?

Pharmaceutical Companies and $$$

Much of this has to do with money. It can cost anywhere from millions to billions of U.S. dollars to develop a single drug. Even then, pharmaceutical and bioengineering companies will focus on the types of drugs they think may be profitable. As a result, some of these drugs are rushed into market and there is an increased pressure for the FDA to approve the drugs for public consumption.

Speaking of the FDA again, I find it brutally hilarious that it wants the companies to shorten the list of side effects mentioned in commercials. Why not, you know, take the number and types of side effects into account when giving them a green light in the first place?

Additionally, it is my understanding that doctors are paid by these drug companies to market and prescribe these products. It’s about money again and some doctors have been compensated for speaking at seminars and at a rate relative to the number of prescriptions they fill. That looks like a serious conflict of interest.

Partnerships like these are a double-edged sword. On one hand, doctors can be informed of new treatments and devices that can generally help patients. On the other, where their primary concern should be the health and well-being of their patients, some doctors may be representing the pharmaceutical companies and their own financial interests to a greater extent. Also, medical professionals may only know as much about a drug as the companies tell them.

This is what gets me about pharmaceutical companies. I see the commercials and I sense a callous disregard for the safety and well-being of the targeted consumers. Underneath the surface, the story may be more complicated but money is the key word here.

What I Loathe About Anti-Drug Commercials

Over the years, there have been some highly memorable anti-drug PSA’s. The best ones were perhaps aired in the 1980’s and 1990’s. One PSA that immediately comes to mind is one where a father confronts his son for using drugs only to be called out for being a bad influence. Another PSA featured pictures of celebrities (including Jimi Hendrix and River Phoenix) who died due to drug usage and one showed a young black child taking the long way home. These ads were highly effective because they were simple and honest.

Another ad was classic was a commercial where a man fries an egg to show the metaphoric effect drugs in general have on brains. While also memorable, it has often been lampooned. One reason might be the fear factor that was being employed.

Now, I would agree that people under the age of 18 should be steered from drinking, smoking, and general drug usage. I also don’t mind PSA’s against driving under the influence. These messages are fine. However, I don’t like how many of the anti-drug companies go about their messages.

The fear factor is one reason why I hate anti-drug commercials. While, yes, people should be warned about the effects certain drugs can have on their brains, bodies, and lives, fear can only go so far until it falls on deaf ears.

And when a commercial uses fear and over-the-top imagery, the message will be doubly ignored. Take the recent anti-smoking commercials. One spot shows a young woman removing a chunk of skin to pay for a pack of cigarettes at a liquor store. Another spot from the same company shows a young man removing a tooth to pay for his cigarettes. And some others show cigarettes as a bunch of scary, carnivorous monsters.

Besides a fear factor is the overreliance on memes, clichés, and crazy stunts to get a point across. One company in particular that is guilty of this is truth®. In 2015, the company aired a couple of commercials with YouTube celebrities, one of which was filled to the brim with Internet memes. “It’s a Trap” even spurred me to make a sloppy comic to make fun of it:

drug commercials, anti-drug, truth comic
Click to see the full comic.

I guess truth® never got the message because now, it  has made another spot using a meme. Enter: CATmageddon! “The Internet looooves cats, so we’ll give them some more in this commercial. SMOKING KILLS CATS, KIDS! DON’T DO IT!”

FYI: I have met some people who had cats, but smoked around them anyway. That’s not gonna work. And in case I didn’t expressly say this, teens and young adults hate memes being used in real life. Commercials using Internet memes are just cringe-worthy. That is all.

Next up in the series: Infomercials.

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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