Out of the Blue
Meds on Parade
Art for the heart — and everything else
By Deborah Salomon
Illustration By Miranda Glyder
We call PineStraw magazine “The Art and Soul of the Sandhills.” There it is, written on the cover. Soul is amorphous. Art, however, wears many guises. It’s called the “art” of politics — at least in part — because if candidates can’t put on a good show they ain’t goin’ nowhere. They deliver artfully crafted scripts often, per Macbeth, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” They choose well-tailored costumes in (except Nancy Pelosi) conservative colors. I almost fainted when she deplaned at midnight in Taiwan wearing a bubblegum-pink pantsuit.
But this art commentary doesn’t concern MAGA caps or power ties. Rather, the drama rampant in TV ads for prescription and OTC medications.
Now Pelosi’s pantsuit appears Pepto Bismol pink.
This dates from 1997 when the FDA relaxed rules governing direct advertising to consumers, as long as side effects receive prominent billing, along with “Consult a physician.” The U.S. and New Zealand are the only countries that allow direct ads.
Sounds like a win-win-win for patients, docs, ad agencies, drug manufacturers and “everyman” actors. Because, with a few exceptions, glamour-pusses don’t have eczema or hemorrhoids.
Truth be told, drug and health-related ads have taken over prime time TV once dominated by Tony the Tiger. To document this I sat down with pencil, paper and stopwatch. My findings indicate that a typical 2-minute ad break will have four or five commercials, at least three of them drug-related. No more white-coated “physician” or “pharmacist” dispensing advice. These are on-location productions with multiple actors, cartooning, music, special effects. Some are melancholy, offering cancer patients “more time” without suggesting a cure. Others push prevention or detection, hence the now familiar Cologuard logo. The toughest to watch are anti-smoking, where the spokesperson is missing a jawbone or larynx, followed by a black screen announcing “Joe Smith died in 2020.”
Pets help. A drug that renders HIV-AIDS “undetectable” avoids the click-off by showing a couple bathing a white dog. Most drug ads, however, feature healthy-looking folks at weddings and graduations, none experiencing the dire side effects listed by the voice-over.
Manipulative? Who cares? Big pharma’s goal is to have you clamoring for the drug by name — if you can pronounce and pay for it. Trade names lean on consonants, particularly X, Y, Z and Q minus the U. Pronounce Cibinqo for me, please. At least the trade name Rinvoq is easier than generic upadacitinib.
I finally found an MD willing to comment, albeit anonymously. Slick, unrealistic, exaggerated, providing false hope by innuendo was his verdict, although he chuckled at the one for a bone strengthener, where grannies narrowly avert accidents like tripping on a pine cone or falling off a ladder.
OK, so almost all’s fair in war and medications. I still draw a line below the belt.
Remember diving for the remote when Viagra burst onto the market? Now, usually around suppertime, the menu includes bent carrots, misshapen zucchini, wacky bananas and cukes simulating Peyronie’s Disease. Look it up. After that, a “stool softener” which compares the ailment to “passing a pineapple,” unpeeled, of course, seems tame. But I do laugh at the one where a woman opens the car door only to find a toilet replacing the driver’s seat, followed by the same substitution for her office chair.
At this rate, it’s only a matter of time until Mona Lisa’s smile will be co-opted to confirm a satisfactory, uh, outcome.
As the evening wears on, hucksters hawk a battery-operated ear wax cleaner called Wush and a dainty ladies’ shaver for “down there.” The men’s version for “groin grooming” is called Lawn Mower. Ugh.
But is this ad art? Or are we creating culture icons? Will the Charmin bears join Pooh and Paddington?
Possibly, considering Christie’s sold Andy Warhol’s painting of a Campbell’s condensed soup can, painted in 1961, for $11 million. Today’s artist might immortalize a fancy organic brand.
Literature has its Pulitzers, Broadway its Tonys, films their Oscars. Ads earn statuettes at the annual Clios, which recognize creativity/excellence in advertising. Health care has its own category.
Clio usually takes the high road, honoring foundations conducting medical research. My vote still supports the nerdy Preparation H spokesguy who insists, coyly, that my derriere “deserves expert care.” PS
Deborah Salomon is a writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.