Creative: Critique: Drug Lust

Agency: FCB Healthcare NY
Creative Director: Cari Weisberg
Copywriter: Marty Regen
Art Director: Don Mulkey
Producer: Amy Houston
Agency: BBDO
CD/Copywriter: Ed Maslow
CD/Art Director: Mark Ezratty
Producer: Tonie Deon
Agency: Ammirati Puris Lintas
Drug Ads Sound Like The Cure For Whatever Ails Us
These days, the pill is no big deal. Ironically, it’s the fear of acne that keeps cash registers humming.
You’re short of breath. There’s pain in your chest. You may be having a heart attack,” an announcer says. “Now what do you do?” (On screen, a graph of a heart monitor is about to become a flat line.)
Wait a minute! Is this a trick question? A pop quiz? I was absent that day! I never got the notes! “Call an ambulance?” the voice states a little more kindly. OK, sure, yeah. “Good. And and and ” And what, Mr. Disembodied Voice? Tell me! Get Dr. Kevorkian on speed dial? Yell at your wife for telling you it’s just gas and to take it outside? Feel bad about secretly cashing out the 401(k) and second mortgaging on the house at the Money Store to take care of that “situation?” What?
The heart skips a beat, the mind reels, but we finally get the answer: “Take Bayer aspirin. Bayer may actually stop you from dying if you take it during a heart attack.”
Wow. And I thought those ancient aspirin commercials showing hammers banging on your head were manipulative. It’s true that a small dose of aspirin can help prevent heart attacks. It’s certainly valuable information– something so cheap and simple can actually prevent death. It’s just the way this latest info is presented–so unbelievably alarmist and extreme in a cut-to-the-chase, black-and-white way (death equals bad, Bayer equals good) that at first it seems like a parody of some scary Fox Network video show. And I don’t mean to trivialize heart attacks or any symptom associated with them.
My dad died of a heart attack, and I miss him every day. And certainly, with the revolution in healthcare, doctors losing their power and autonomy to HMO factories, patients having to manage their own managed care and the simultaneous development of so many new drugs, any nugget of health information gleaned from TV is good, I guess.
At least that was part of the thinking in allowing the Food and Drug Administration to relax its ad rules as of August 1997. As a result, direct-to-consumer (DTC) prescription drug ads are the brave new category of the ad world, with media expenditures now surpassing $1 billion–and still exploding.
The changes allowed drug makers to sell their own brand names on TV and radio, as long as the ads include a statement of major risks, something called the brief summary (the contraindications, side effects) and the four points for consumer access to the full-risk information: a Web site, 800 number, print ads and “Ask your doctor.” Talk about a shot in the arm for all media.
Conversely, in making the sell gauzy, not scary, an Ortho Tri-Cyclen ad is the anti-Bayer. It’s all creamy, aesthetically correct and dreamy. Our subject is a fresh-faced, clean-scrubbed, seemingly intelligent young woman in contempo khaki clothing, sitting on her overstuffed sofa in her tasteful Pottery Barnish home. She mentions her husband Mark and her desire, someday, to have three children.
But for now, she’s on the pill–the one that “helps my skin look better, too.” You can’t blame Ortho for hammering home that unique selling proposition–the only birth-control pill that prevents acne. It’s what made America great. And if you are already on the pill, why not go for the added benefit? Still, the mind reels at the complications this seemingly innocent, yet disingenuous pitch could bring: Teenage girls telling their parents that they want it for acne and then using it during sex, when it doesn’t protect from sexually transmitted diseases.
Then there’s the matter of “serious risks include blood clots, stroke and heart attacks,” which is also announced during the ad. That’s a big price to pay for clean skin. We have come a long way; the pill, the scourge of right-wing fathers in Nixon’s day, is now so common it’s no big deal. Ironically, it’s the fear of acne that keeps cash registers humming.
Ostensibly, the benefits of this flood of DTC advertising, aside from increasing pharmaceutical and media revenues (not to mention Web sites), is that it will encourage consumers to be more responsible about their own health, to take a greater hand in managing their own decisions, to talk to their doctors and ask more questions.
This empowerment figures strongly in the pitch for Meridia, a prescription weight-loss drug that encourages the patient to diet and exercise while taking it. “You do your part and we’ll do ours.” The spot is wonderfully cast–all the women are pretty and pretty overweight.
The announcer also tells us that it is “a controlled substance, so some patients may experience limited dependence.” Is it possible there’s so much truth in advertising here that people just tune it out?
We’ll soon have a new catch phrase taken from advertising. Instead of “batteries not included,” it will be “side effects may include headache, constipation, dry mouth and nausea.”
Similarly, an ad for the Zyban pill (“not a patch, not a gum”) also goes for the art directorish, intelligent, graphic visuals of its cousins in the larger ad world. We get stark, graphic images involving lighters and cigarettes, and finally, a cigarette getting its butt kicked by the big blown-up pink pill. It also has the right amount of DTC gravitas–the walking man in the Big Suit, delivering the serious information about the cessation of smoking.
But here’s a case where no matter how persuasive, charming or calming the visuals are, the spot also has to include this information, delivered in voiceover: “There is a risk of seizure associated with Zyban. To reduce the risk, don’t take Zyban if you have an eating or seizure disorder, if you’re taking a Mao inhibitor or being treated with Wellbutrin.” Yet the stuff the ad does say is enough to give someone a seizure!
And then, what do you do first?