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Fear Factor

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One woman, on a park bench, admits, "I'm always thinking something terrible is going to happen. I can't handle it." Another, in her kitchen, confesses, "Your worst fears ... the what-ifs. ... I can't control it. I'm always worrying about everything." A third says, "It's like a tape in my mind. It just goes over and over and over."

Sound familiar?

The scenes are from a recent commercial for Paxil, a GlaxoSmithKline prescription drug used to treat general anxiety and panic disorders, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders. But in halting voices, these women express the same feelings of fear and helplessness that have become all too common since Sept. 11.

That day and the two months since—with nonstop news about war and terrorism, including biological and nuclear threats—are enough to push anyone to the verge of a nervous breakdown. What we once imagined only as fiction has become fact, and we are clearly more aware of our strengths and weaknesses—as a nation and as individuals.

But what is the responsibility of marketing that directly addresses those fears and weaknesses? In a time of such confusion and chaos, how do we know who to believe?

Many organizations, private and public, have taken steps to educate. Soon after the attacks, Laura Bush appeared in an Ad Council-produced public-service announce ment, discussing the importance of talking about the attacks with children. Julia Roberts, in a spot for the Red Cross, stood in front of the flag and said, "We all have painful emotions following these hideous events. ... Ask for help if you need it."

No doubt there is a greater need now for anti-depressant drugs like Paxil, Zoloft and the new Prozac Weekly. And the number of prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax and Valium jumped immediately after the attacks, particularly in Washington, D.C., and New York.

But ads like the Paxil one are almost certainly creating a need beyond what actually exists. Sure, we relate to these ads. Does that mean we should all be popping pills?

The ads don't make enough of a distinction between normal feelings of grief and what might be a more dangerous condition needing treament. By being intentionally general, they pull us in—and the emotion clouds the specific details that follow about who might need the drug.

To be fair, unlike some marketers, the drug companies don't seem to be actively taking advantage. A before-and-after sample of ads reveals little change in the emphasis on issues like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pfizer, perhaps, came the closest to stepping over the line. The maker of Zoloft, a drug that is FDA-approved to treat post-traumatic stress, ran a PSA with images of the flag, candles and firemen at ground zero. It mentioned a $10 million donation to relief efforts. "We wish we could make a medicine that would take away the heartache," the ad said. "Until we can, we will continue to do everything we can to help."

If you think that's pushing it, just wait. The FDA recently approved a study to test the effectiveness of Ecstasy in treating stress disorders.

I can't wait to see that ad.