Pharma ads on TV will turn our kids into the biggest hypochondriacs in human history?

I like to limit my TV viewing to content targeted at 5-year-olds, generally streaming and ad-free. However, the kids sometimes hear about a big tennis tournament that is going on and ask to see parts of it. What do they see? About 30 percent of the ads seem to be for drugs that treat medical conditions afflicting older adults. Perhaps this isn’t surprising in a country where health care is 20 percent of GDP (and 40 percent of profits?). Each of these ads leads to a question: “What’s that for?” So they’re getting a much earlier education in all of the ways that the human body can fail than we Boomers did (we saw ads for cars, packaged food, toys, beer and wine, etc.).

I know a lot of people who are 10 to 30 years old and are afraid to leave their homes because of a virus that kills 82-year-olds. I wonder if these folks were already preconditioned to be anxious about their health by the preponderance of TV ads for medication.

I’m thinking that it will be even worse for kids currently 0-10. The only world that they’ve known looks like an Ebola clinic and, in addition to all of the masks, gloves, face shields, obsessive surface cleaning, and shutdowns of which they’ve become aware, they’re spent a lot of time at home seeing TV ads for all of the conditions that were considered serious prior to coronapanic.

Here’s an example…

Lots of good questions for an early reader… “What’s HIV?”, “What’s getting HIV through sex?”, “What’s people assigned female at birth?”

A still frame from the above in case it disappears from YouTube:

Another example:

15 thoughts on “Pharma ads on TV will turn our kids into the biggest hypochondriacs in human history?

  1. Sometimes I think the opposite and it’s easy to see the types of programming that advertisers and media companies know attract the aging boomer set through all the ads for the pharmaceuticals, but also life insurance companies, home security systems, and elder care facilities.

    Acutally I think some of the ads might make kids absolutely determined to stay away from doctor-prescribed drugs and practice much better preventive health to avoid he exhaustive list of *side effects* that go along with most of the ads. If that doesn’t scare your smart 10 YO into asking: “Dad, the drug sounds worse than the disease, doesn’t it?” I don’t know what will.

    And in truth you could tell them: “That’s right honey. And I can tell you why.” With a long explanation about the real power of #Science and #Medicine, particularly when it comes to pharmaceutical design. A good starting point for a macroeconomics (and even microeconomics) discussion as well. Get those kids thinking early.

    • Of course, for some of the smarter ones who already read stuff like “Scientific” American in all its postmodern, politicized glory (with bigger pictures, shorter and less challenging articles, and heaping helpings of political bias and “nudge” baked in) and know about technologies like CRISPR, something different might occur to them: “Dad, since Watson and Crick published ‘Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’ in 1953 and we have CRISPR now, why don’t we look a lot harder at the genetic basis of these conditions and try to genetically engineer them out of the population so people don’t have to buy all these dangerous drugs?”

    • I may be biased, old and crusty in my ripe middle-agedom, but if anyone tries to tell me that the modern editions of Scientific American are more challenging than the old issues, I say they’re full of hooey. Yeah, I know. The demographics have shifted. The publishing world is ‘different’. New generations like different things, yadda yadda. I still think the older issues were much more informative and rigorous without anywhere near as much implicit political bias. As always, judge for oneself whether we’ve gotten dumber:

  2. I always wondered how these drug ads are supposed to work. What’s an MD going to do if a patient says “I saw X on TV. The people looked so happy. Prescribe it to me!”? Are they supposed slap their forehead and say “You’re right! That never occurred to me. Here’s an new RX for X.”

    • You’d be surprised. I used to work in the Outpatient Psychiatry Department of a rather large, urban hospital right around the time SSRIs like Prozac and several others were going through the Boost Phase. Most of the Psychiatrists were male MDs in their late 40s or later, and the Pharma companies always made sure, at least once a month, to send a few reps. by to talk with the docs. about their latest drugs – complete with sample kits, literature, boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts, coffee, breakfast rolls, high heels, lipstick, ample bustlines, perfect skin, 36-24-38 figures, just below the knee skirts, incredible hair and makeup, really nice clothes, and good perfume and tasteful accessories. These reps. were also very smart and personable, and they knew their stuff in terms of the prescription and off-label uses, and were generally a blast to have around the place. I always looked forward to seeing them, and I know that several other of the docs. did as well.

      In reality I think it’s the other way around: you see the ads. after the doctors have already gotten a lot of the sales pitch and literature through other channels in their own offices, now of course with reps. tailored a little to the modern sociopolitical environment. My $0.02.

    • So, either most of these drugs sort-a-kind-a work interchangeably and the doctor’s take is “sure, try it, who knows maybe it will work, I have no strong opinion on it” or the ads are actually targeted to the doctors themselves who have time to watch all that TV? All those ads are expensive; they must increase sales somehow.

    • @demetri: I have people on my Facebook feed who believe that sticking a lit candle into one’s ear is the best, modern, “holistic” way to remove earwax buildup from their ears. This country is a very stark divide between the “totally stupid” and the “almost stupid” but with a lot of money involved and much better production values in terms of marketing and so forth.

    • demetri-

      Yes the ads work because of patient demand, much like toy ads for children between cartoons.

      Most doctors are not self-employed, and patient satisfaction scores are used as indicators of care ‘performance’ with compensation often directly or indirectly tied to far scores. Patients are happier when they are prescribed the shiny new drugs they see advertised on TV. Add to that it’s easier to write a prescription than to explain why the drug might not be the best thing for the patient or to teach the patient to take care of their minds and bodies without drugs, and add to that most doctors are people-pleases, and finally that the current en-vogue approach is less paternalism and more shared-decision-making, then you have an efficient drug-selling system fueled by demand created in large part through advertisement.

  3. My own view is that over say the last 20 years or so there has been a feminization of culture — with this heavy emphasis on feelings, apologies, safety and fear. This is not surprising given that women have achieved a much larger role in our society and most societies over the last few decades, and the political process now takes their perspectives on the world more seriously than it has in the past. It is a much bigger phenomenon than ads on TV.

  4. Maybe if we rebrand to “People-assigned-female-at-birth Sports” we can reach an early conclusion to the whole trans vs. women’s sports debate. Though I will admit that PAFABNBA doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

  5. Every single one of those pharma ads, be it on TV, magazines, newspapers or internet, use attractive, active and healthy actors to sell their drugs. Why would such a person be on drugs? And why at the end of the ads, for 2 seconds a text flashes that you need 5 seconds to read or the announcer fast-talks in 2 seconds for a 10 seconds sentence?

    In my opinion, those pharma ads should be ban just like we banned cigarette ads. The majority of the viewers and readers of such ads don’t know much about the drug, but the few who have the symptom being presented in the ad, even when they have never heard of the drug, will demand it from their Dr. because they think they know better then their Dr. and some of those Dr. will prescribe it to their patient to shut them up.

  6. From “Letters” [to the editor] in the July, 1970 issue of Scientific American. Are we dumber or smarter?


    I have read with the greatest interest Sidney R. Gafield’s account of the Kaiser-Permanente medical-care program and his argument that regular health testing is an ideal regulator of entry into medical care [“The Delivery of Medical Care,” by Sidney R. Garfield; Scientific American, April 1970]. Undoubtedly it is very much more efficient than the traditional haphazard “on demand” utilization of medical care. I do not think, however, that Dr. Garfield has faced up to what I believe to be a more fundamental issue, namely that whatever system is adopted for the delivery of medical care, the potential demand appears to be unlimited. The Kaiser-Permanente experiment itself has confirmed the unsurprising truth that the more systematically one looks for abnormalities, the more one finds. As the population ages, more disease will exist waiting to be detected by regular screening. At the same time our technical ability to treat disorders is rapidly extending, thus increasing the scope for medical care. Finally, our threshold of “acceptable” disorders is being continually lowered, so that people now expect care for conditions they would have prepared to suffer in silence a few decades ago.

    Because of this, I believe we should recognize the possibility that regular health testing will in practice bring in more and more patients for medical care as time progresses. We in Britain mistakenly believed the creation of our National Health Service in 1948 would catch up with a backlog of untreated sickness and the demand for medical care would subsequently diminish. As we now know for the reasons described above, the reverse happened, and we believe the situation would be further aggravated if health checks were freely available on the health service. I think it would be foolish for the U.S. to repeat our own error by deluding itself that a system of prepaid medical care, relying on health testing as a regulator to entry, would necessarily contain the demand for treatment to manageable proportions. Some other more effective regulator of demand will, I think, be needed in addition.

    G. Teeling-Smith
    Office of Health Economics

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