Eli Lilly’s Brain Wave

A rush of rich images and deft production conveys the head trip of attention deficit disorder

It’s not itching and scaling and bloating. The symptoms of attention deficit disorder are subtle, more complex and tougher to diagnose, especially in an adult. And they’re extremely tricky to illustrate in a TV commercial. That’s why “No Remote,” a new spot from Eli Lilly, is such a breakthrough.

You’ve heard of the movie Claire’s Knee? This little film could be called Ann’s Head. And that’s a place you don’t really want to visit—although the internal chaos and thrumming is exquisitely reproduced here.

We watch as Ann, an attractive, clear-eyed 40-ish professional with a husband, kids, etc., attempts to sit through a corporate meeting. Through deft layering of sound and split-second cutting of images, we feel her pain. The boss starts in with the usual stuff: “Basically we have our work cut out for us … sales are down …” From inside Ann’s head, we are off. In images shot at all different speeds, some clear, some grainy, some supersaturated, some black and white, we go from a supermarket cart to a kid outside to the inside of a refrigerator to a birthday card to a guy yelling, “Pay attention!”

Each staccato, ADD-like burst is punctuated with static. (Very clever.) Some of the images are workaday (24-hour photo service counter), some are more psychological (this woman must have had a run-in at some point with an evil bunny—what is it about this psycho icon that resonates so strongly?), and some are symbolic. A bunch of red balls bounces down stairs, every which way, as if all the balls she’s juggling have been let go (that juggler thing is a women’s magazine staple). The image itself is quite striking and cinematic, as is the lightning-fast cut of Ann drowning under water in a bathtub and then drowning, figuratively speaking, from the disarray of her kitchen.

By the end, the ominous angles have even the viewer feeling constricted. As we get lost in this waking nightmare of cerebral disorder, a male announcer says, “What if this wasn’t your TV. What if it was your mind. … You’d feel distracted, disorganized, unable to finish things. Like the channel keeps changing in your mind and you don’t have control of the remote.”

The line about the channel and the remote, which is a perfect metaphor, apparently came straight out of research, out of the mouth of an ADD sufferer. The voiceover then directs the viewer to a Web site, adult.add.test.com, and advises talking to your doctor.

This is simply an “awareness” spot, and the name of the Eli Lilly drug (Strattera, the first FDA-approved medication for adult ADD) is never mentioned. So obviously the spot benefits tremendously from avoiding the “fair balance” listing of those lovely side effects. (Whether you have ADD or not, nothing interrupts a train of thought like the mention of anal fissures.) And the idea of self-diagnosis (or at least diagnosing yourself enough to go to a doctor) through an Internet test consisting of six questions is a bit simplistic. (“How often do you leave your seat in meetings or other situations in which you are expected to remain seated?” is one question. Who likes to sit through meetings, first of all, and what if it’s a bladder matter? That’s a whole different commercial.)

Plus, a lot of the symptoms are merely the result of contemporary life. We live in a complete ADD culture; it could be said that most advertising creatives have it or, if not, help to cause it by adding to the constant bombardment of media images. What’s more, the alarming fragments pieced together in the commercial simply mimic the non-narrative form of the music video.

The all-important qualifier the announcer offers is, “If you’ve felt this kind of frustration most of your life … you could be suffering from ADD.” (“It’s not just for hyperactive little boys, anymore!” they might say.) Not that I’m in search of a quick fix or anything, but I actually called my doctor to ask about it. (I’ve found the answer to all my life’s problems! Hello, Pulitzer! Hello, Nobel!) She wasn’t as excited but did admit it could help some people.

I’m impressed with the commercial for hitting all the right tones. Director Mark Pellington achieves a visual excellence, rich with compelling images, rarely seen in the category. (Though at one point, Ann, who has quite a distracting nose job—that’s the ADD in me speaking—sits with a bit too much of the “classic headache formation” knit-brow look, but that’s a quibble.)

“This is Ann’s brain on drugs” the follow-up commercial might say, reversing the well-known setup, and this time we’d get a look at a steel trap of a mind.