How offensive ads sell drugs for pharma

How did pharma become the third most lucrative U.S. industry? In addition to millions doled out to federal lawmakers and medical groups, it uses the world’s best ad agencies and public relations firms to “move product.”

For example, more than ten years ago the slick PR firm, Cohn and Wolfe, vaulted “shyness” to a national psychiatric problem to sell the SSRI antidepressants Paxil, now linked to birth defects and suicide. The same disease promotion was seen with “Binge Eating Disorder” (once overeating) and GERD (once heartburn).

Depression was insidiously “sold” to the U.S. population with an ad campaign called The Change You Deserve to boost sales of the antidepressant Effexor. Now as much as a fourth of the U.S. population takes antidepressants, most having never been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition but simply wanting to “enjoy things the way we used to do” as the ads promised. Thanks to direct-to-consumer drug ads, patients self-diagnose and . . . doctors oblige.

To sell the antipsychotic Seroquel to children, AstraZeneca considered creating Winnie-the the-Pooh characters like Tigger (bipolar) and Eeyore (depressed), according to published reports at an AstraZeneca sales meeting. Parents say they have seen toys emblazoned with Seroquel logos.

“Disney-fying” psychoactive drugs for children is not just a U.S. phenomenon. A lime-green kids’ brochure for Zyprexa, published by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), shows cartoons of happy kids skating, rollerblading and playing soccer with the copy, “Many children, teenagers and young people need to take medicines prescribed by doctors to help them stay well and healthy.” Similar NHS brochures were made for Risperdal and Strattera, an ADHD drug.

Some of pharma’s most offensive ads are for psychiatric drugs. The London-based ad agency, Junction 11 (GSW Worldwide), hired noted Welsh oil painter, Mark Moran, to create a campaign for the antipsychotic Risperdal called “Living Nightmares.” The paintings were designed to “capture physicians’ attention and communicate patients’ agony and need for treatment,” said its originators, while helping Risperdal maker, Janssen, “own the relapse/prevention space.” Ka-ching.

Titles of paintings in the ad campaign included “Dog-Woman,” “Witches,” “Rotting Flesh,” and “Boiling Rain.” Not to stigmatize people with mental illness or anything.

How prescribing early makes pharma more money

For decades pharma has urged patients and doctors to use its drugs early when it comes to mental conditions. Pharma has floated dubious pharma-funded research that “shows” mental conditions get worse if they are not treated early. But as one cynical doctor puts it, the real hurry is the symptoms “might go away.” Needless to say, when taking a drug for a condition a patient might have, she never knows if she needed it then—or now.

Such scare tactics work in pharma ads. A Risperdal campaign, called “Prescribe Early,” used a macabre abandoned wallet, teddy bear and keys on a barren street to convey that a patient died and to “reposition a drug that was being used too late to achieve its maximum benefits,” said its advertising agency. Benefits for whom?

This article is excerpted from Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health

Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.

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