Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine: An Exploration of Prescription Drug Commercials

alternative medicine

The rest of the world, presumably jealous that their flags aren’t currently orbiting the fucking Earth right now, often delights in pointing out what they view as foibles of the American way. Imperial measurements, fast food, and American football are derided. An overlooked idiosyncrasy of American life, though, is our tacit permittance of prescription drug commercials, unique to us and New Zealand. More bizarre is the fact these commercials are universally despised yet staggeringly effective; 70% of American adults take at least one prescription drug. We’re a nation of hypochondriacs, using direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising as a scapegoat for our discomfort with the commercialization of mental health and prophylaxis.

Still, it’s hard not to appreciate an art form that’s so potent despite its main audience actively despising it. Drug advertising is the equivalent of an Oasis record; no one has ever particularly enjoyed their music, but somehow every suburban household in America has a copy of What’s the Story Morning Glory. How do these copywriters tackle the three-headed chimera of a) telling their audience that they have a major malfunction, b) convincing them that their product is reliable and effective, and c) telling them all the ways that their product will severely harm them? This is the great American art form, one that brutally disgusts and alienates you in order to sell you stuff that’s probably not good for you. I love it.

It’s hard to talk about this in the abstract. So let’s watch some shit about bladders that aren’t getting the job done:

At first blush, this commercial has every hallmark of the genre. The company has identified a problem that was previously seen as too trivial to fall under the domain of medicine, like cold sores or bad breath previously, and given it an ominous initialism. There’s the expected list of spooky symptoms, brushed under the rug with formulaic speech that the brain automatically filters out, just as we don’t hear the names of the producers at the end of a morning talk show. There’s the common appeal to women of a certain age, especially those with “a busy lifestyle” that can’t be impeded by something as trivial as the workings of their own body.

More important than these window-dressings is the way the concept itself is delivered. Computer generated animation has taken the world of shitty advertising by storm but I don’t believe any other field has benefited more than DTC drug commercials. The obvious advantage is that the shiny colors and constant motion provide visual stimuli as the auditory susurrus of symptoms and disclaimers goes unnoticed. But more than that, this style of commercial relies heavily on a metalepsis of a common cliche used to talk politely about the affliction (cf. “leaky pipes”). The cliche here is usually a familiar euphemism, created by doctors or professionals, because their job consists in making the human body abstract, turning its failures into mechanical errors rather than allowing the patient to confront the facts of their own deterioration. There is a strong desire to convince ourselves that somehow “I” is only something occupying “my body” rather than being synonymous with it, because the body signifies mortality. The drugs are, of course, an escape from the painful side effects of life, distancing us from both physical and psychic discomfort. At least until Wheel of Fortune comes back on to distract us.

The metalepsis, though, is the most enchanting part of the whole weird mess to me. Every prescription commercial goes out of its way to embrace the Unheimlich, the familiar-but-not-quite. An entire fictional world has been briefly constructed based on a loose, bidirectional metaphor connecting plumbing with the excretory system; a world only connected to ours by the ways in which our bodies fail. The world is fully realized though, as if to suggest that our bodies’ collapse is the base upon which our world is formed. I can only imagine Kafka would chuckle grimly.

And the efficacy of the commercials is almost directly correlated with how irreparable the bond between disintegration and the body can be made. The most interesting and outlandish DTC commercials create a need that didn’t exist before, e.g., cures for halitosis and cold sores. Who could watch the Restless Legs Syndrome commercials with block letters crawling inside of airplane passengers’ legs without vicariously feeling the discomfort? Or the foot fungus commercials in which an obnoxious Joe Pesci-esque parasite takes up residence underneath a chipped crusty toenail? The familiarity coupled with immediate repulsiveness leads to a discord between the psyche and the body; a soothing narrator assures us there is a cure, needing only a prescription, barring any preexisting heart conditions of course. Lacan wrote that Angst was a consequence of the Unheimlich, when the object that entraps the subject in a solipsistic state with its familiarity also reveals to the subject his lack of autonomousness. Lacan famously came to these thoughts after seeing a crudely animated ball of mucus take up occupancy in his lungs, sending him into a dark, congested depression.

(Brief aside: I found this commercial immediately by searching “cialis commercial nachos,” meaning someone else had the same weird association with it as me. According to the description on YouTube, it was “uploaded by special request,” after apparently being recorded on a camcorder poorly aimed at a TV. I feel like this raises more questions than it answers.)

One amazing side effect of the FCC’s prudishness is that it forces companies selling erectile dysfunction drugs to rely on symbolism that’s equal parts subtle and middle-schoolish. The obvious metaphor being played on here is expressed with another metalepsis, this time of a wife helping her husband “polish his wood” (also playing on the man’s fear of a loss of masculinity, here associated with carpentry). But what’s happening with the man in a “#34 FOOTBALL” shirt and his infatuation with nachos? The nachos are triangular, clearly meant to symbolize female sexuality, like that scene in Da Vinci Code with the painting of the Last Supper. That large bowl of nachos is the wife’s answer to her husband’s newfound virility, a restoration of the natural order. The health of the (very patriarchal) sense of domesticity is established to be essential to the stability of the sexual relationship. If that sounds stupid, that’s because it is. I just really wanted to show this commercial because of that hilarious “wood-polishing” pun they snuck in and that gigantic fucking bowl of nachos.

It’s hard to say whether these commercials are objectively good or bad in terms of their impact. Well, that’s not quite true. They’re very obviously terrible. But there’s something a little bit exciting about experiencing parallel realities in 30-second chunks, ones that remind us of the price our corporeality bears before quickly trying to sew up the wound with strange Flash Gordon words like Zoloft and Chantix. Brutal capitalism aside, I can’t think of another art form so capable of setting its viewer at unease than these commercials, given a captive audience. Could Edgar Allan Poe ever create a world as subtly horrifying asthe Enzyte neighborhood?

1 Comment on Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine: An Exploration of Prescription Drug Commercials

  1. Jake Friedler
    October 27, 2014 at 6:23 pm (3 years ago)

    hilarious, thought-provoking, scholarly – great job!


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