Big Pharma uses ads that sow hypochondria, raise health fears and sell diseases to adults and their children.
It’s no secret that advertising works. Big Pharma wouldn’t spend over $4 billion a year on direct-to-consumer advertising if it didn’t mean massive profits.
What is more unknown is why drug ads that sow hypochondria, raise health fears and “sell” diseases are often the most common–and effective–even when the drugs themselves are of questionable safety.
The nation’s fourth most frequent drug ads in 2009 for were Cymbalta, making Eli Lilly $3.1 billion in one year, despite the antidepressant’s links to liver problems and suicide. Pfizer spent $157 million advertising Lyrica for fibromyalgia in 2009, despite the seizure pill’s links to life-threatening allergic reactions. The same year, it spent $107 million advertising the antidepressant Pristiq, even though it also had links to liver problems.
So, how does Pharma dupe us into using unsafe drugs? Today’s drug ads, targeted directly to consumers since 1999, seem like they sell diseases and often cast women, children, the elderly and mentally ill in a bad light. But a quick look at ads before direct-to-consumer advertising (DTC) in medical journals shows that drug ads have always done so. It’s just that patients didn’t used to see them.
Here are some of Pharma’s most offensive ad campaigns, then and now.
1. You’re Sicker Than You Think
When psychiatric drugs first became popular for use in the general population, in the late 1960s, everyday personality problems became imbued with psychiatric labels. “Lady, your anxiety is showing (over a coexisting depression),” says a 1970 ad, showing an older, wrinkly woman in a bouffant wig with gigantic sunglasses and garish jewelry. “On the visible level, this middle-aged patient dresses to look too young, exhibits a tense, continuous smile and may have bitten nails or overplucked eyebrows,” says the ad copy. “What doesn’t show as clearly is the coexisting depression.”
The ad, both sexist and ageist, suggests the woman needs the antidepressant and tranquillizer Triavil.
Another ad from 1968 shows a bored, upper-middle-class couple whose hauteur is also said to really be depression. “Do you have patients who try to hide frustration behind conformity?” says the ad for the antidepressant Aventyl HCl.
You’d think such demeaning ads would vanish with DTC advertising because people would be offended. But You’re Sicker-Than-You-Think ads are alive and well since DTC advertising and even flowering.
A three-page consumer ad in the late 2000s similarly conveys that everyday psychological traits could actually be dire mental problems that require medication. If you are “talking too fast,” “spending out of control,” “sleeping less,” “flying off the handle” and “buying things you don’t need,” you could be suffering from bipolar disorder said the ads, which appeared in magazines like People. And here you thought it was the coffee. Accompanying photos of a woman screaming into a phone and contorting her face are so extreme they could come out of the movie Halloween Part II, if the woman were holding a knife.
Psychiatric drugs are not just advertised for everyday personality problems. Pharma is pushing them for everyday pain conditions. Eli Lilly’s original depression campaign for the antidepressant Cymbalta, “Depression Hurts,” seems to anticipate its subsequent approval for pain conditions including back problems. Now ads tout Cymbalta as a “non-narcotic, once daily analgesic FDA approved for three indications across four different chronic pain conditions,” as if it does not have severe controversial psychiatric risks including the suicide of volunteers who tested it…