Next time you sit down for an evening of television, take note of the number of drug commercials you see. Quite likely you will watch ads about pills for heart problems, arthritis, crohn’s disease, erections, and plenty of mental health commercials. This time while you watch, pay special attention to the great detail in how the commercials are constructed, including the efforts made to match the actors to you, me, and the next guy. Also, watch the lengths these ads go to make us feel like the people in the ads, and how the ads end by encouraging us to get our free trial run of the drug by simply asking our doctor.
If it seems strange to you that we as Americans are perpetually hit with commercials for drugs that include prompts for us to literally tell our doctors what we need, you may be surprised that we are 1 of only 3 countries in the world that allows for this kind of drug-direct-to-consumer type of advertising. One way to interpret this is to assume that we, the would-be consumers of the drug, are better positioned to tell our doctors, individuals with years and years of medical education, what we need to help our condition. If that sounds odd to you, it does to me, too.
The effects of Direct-to-Consumer advertising
Prior to the 1990’s Americans were not exposed to pharmaceutical advertisements, meaning we, like the rest of the world, relied on our doctors to examine us without influence or suggestions from patients. The advantage to this approach was that the expertise of medicine was left entirely to the doctor, and not a psychological influence created by an ad that prompted patients to full-court press their doctors into free samples. The disadvantage to allowing doctors to be doctors was…well, there really wasn’t a disadvantage in my view (and 99% of the world’s countries still feel this way today).
It is important to note that my views here are not in any way against medicine, but instead the ways in which we “empower” lay people to approach their physicians in an attempt to influence important medical decisions. Using different examples, would you tell your teacher how you should learn? Or your accountant how you should file your taxes? Or your lawyer what strategies she should use in representing you? Or your veterinarian how to examine your dog? If you answered “no” to those questions, then why would it be a good thing for patients to tell doctors what drugs they need?
Mental health implications
Relating to mental health, these drug advertisements can lead to serious mental health implications:
- The ads often incite panic by presenting conditions that can often be addressed by simpler, less dangerous approaches including diet, exercise, rest, and sometimes counseling.
- Sometimes the ads create self-fulfilling prophecies, where the ad prompts erroneous thinking that “if you have these symptoms” (you might be doomed without the drug).
- The free trial run prompt creates an unusual, often unhealthy doctor-patient dynamic where the patient assumes an egalitarian role in the relationship, and can even cause problems for physicians who decide against providing patients a free trial run of the drug.
- The ads are often so well done that people completely ignore all the side effects running along the bottom of the screen in tiny font size — many of these side effects far worse than the condition the drug is intended to fix.
- Going on drugs may prevent people from taking the onus of responsibility in creating change in their life, instead prompting them to defer to using a medication instead.
Become a critical consumer when it comes to your health, ask a lot of questions, and don’t overlook the basics (i.e. nutrition, rest, exercise) when it comes to holistic, drug-free wellness.