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John Hopkins

The Show Must Go On and all that Yaz!



There are certain drug compounds that I, as a consumer, can not purchase without the permission (think prescription here) of a licensed physician. There is very good reason for this. There are drugs for which the use must be weighed and evaluated by trained medical people. In some cases the risk in taking a drug may very well be certain death or serious injury.

International drug sales represent a +$600 billion per year industry. It is not an insignificant pot of money and it involves a relatively small number of total competing companies; all of whom command the distribution of sales and profits. This is big business.

I am entirely in favor of corporate profit and I am a very big supporter of the free market and capitalism. Corporate America, however, can not have it both ways. They can not market products they know to be potentially dangerous; in a way that distorts the benefits of the dangerous product or in a way that obscures all of the potential risks of a dangerous product.

In the year 2000, the pharmaceutical industry spent $16 billion marketing drugs in the US and, of that, $2.5 billion was spent in direct to consumer marketing (in 2008, the industry spent over $5 billion). So, the drug industry believed it was a smart investment to spend 20% of their total advertising in trying to sell to a part of the population who can not directly purchase their product. They still concentrated their ad investment on physicians, but they can not appeal to the emotional aspects of physician’s decision making process.

Drug companies should be making the honest advantages of their drugs and all the potential side effects and complications of their drugs their featured message in direct to consumer advertising. These marketers of potentially dangerous products should not be more interested in Broadway productions than in conveying important information. This area of marketing has become a real science. It is readily accepted by psychologists and ad creators that people remember more things in the beginning and the end of a list than they do in the middle of the list. Ad makers know to “bury” the bad news (think potential side effects) in the middle of commercials.

What do some drug companies ACTUALLY do? They distract; they control tempo; they time their delivery of complications information at moments during their commercials when the consumer is LEAST likely to be listening carefully. Many of the drug companies seem much more interested in creating a feeling of euphoria than relaying information.

See Video Deceptive Drug Ads Video at Time.

Ruth Day is a researcher at Duke University who studies “medical cognition”. She cites a number of isolated examples of drug ad distraction:

·    An ad for Schering-Plough’s allergy drug Nasonex featured a bumble bee that flew around as side effects were listed, but simply hovered when benefits were discussed. “All of these wing flaps and wing flashes and sparkly things essentially divided the attention of the viewers … and thus led to decreased knowledge” of possible risks, Day said.
·    Merck/Schering-Plough’s one-minute ad for the cholesterol-lowering drug Vytorin is a standard example: it repeats the drug’s benefits over and over, but squeezes in risk information only once and just after the halfway mark. (Time, 2008)
·    The Lunesta commercial’s narrator spoke at the same syllable-per-second clip for the entire ad; the Ambien ad’s voiceover speed was about five syllables per second during the explanation of benefits, but accelerated to eight syllables per second when explaining the potential side effects.

And, then there is all that Yaz! This is a drug in which Bayer promises birth control, sure, but oh so-o-o-o much more! According to Bayer (depending on which ads you pay attention to), Yaz will: reduce menstrual bleeding; reduce irritability, moodiness, bloating, and feeling anxious; and emotional and physical premenstrual symptoms.  Amazingly, it also treats acne, so it is just perfect for the teens in the crowd.
What is wrong with this? The Broadway show of balloons, jumping women, colors, and other extravaganza distract from the important information: what complication do I potentially face in taking this drug?  The message is deceptive: if you take Yaz, you too will be a young, attractive, energetic, successful woman, who is admired by all who see you.

One can only hope that the pharmaceutical industry pays as much attention to their research as they do their Broadway style advertising budgets.


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