Don't Think This Isn't a War (December 6, 2016)
Last week, a nice lady told me an interesting bit of scuttlebutt that she'd heard from her M.D. This doctor is the alternative/holistic type who chiefly uses diet, exercise and nutritional supplements to treat his patients. This doctor said that some of his patients (who of course are normally as drug-averse as he is) have come to him asking if this or that medication they saw advertised on television might be for them.
And – this is the kicker -- THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT THE MEDICATION IS FOR. What the – really? Now that, people, is an example of effective promotion.
Whether or not prescription medications should be allowed to be advertised is a controversial subject. I don't mean just DTC (direct-to-consumer) advertising, which is legal only in the United States and New Zealand, but advertising to medical professionals as well. Silly, huh? Surely medical doctors, with all their specialized training and superior intelligence, can be counted on to resist the obvious seductions of pharmaceutical companies?
Well, the answer to that is “apparently not”. Pharmaceutical companies spend at least five times as much money promoting to M.D.s as they do to consumers. They wouldn’t do that if it didn’t work. And it works not because every new drug is better than the one before it, because the opposite is more likely to be true. It works because everyone is open to persuasion at a non-rational level.
Note that I did not say “irrational”. I said “non-rational”, which I am pretty sure is an actual word. Ads have two kinds of content, called in the advertising biz “propositional” and “non-propositional”. The propositional elements are the facts, the rational part, which are subject to true/false evaluation. The non-propositional elements are the music and visuals and the weasel words that are used to suggest things without actually saying them. If you really want to persuade someone, you use a non-propositional appeal.
Pharmaceutical companies know that as soon as they start television advertising for a medication, the number of prescriptions skyrockets. And that sudden leap is not due to people harassing their doctors into prescribing it. It happens too quickly for that to be what is is going on. It occurs because the physicians themselves are influenced by the commercials and start prescribing the thing on their own.
That is why I had to remove a couple of highly entertaining paragraphs from this essay about how, whatever else you might want to say about them, medical physicians are far more equipped to make decisions about medications than is your average patient. Because it seems that when it comes to being the victims of drug advertising, they are just as vulnerable as we are.
So the power of pharmaceutical advertising is such that even experts are swayed by it. Now THAT is a scary thought.
What kind of manipulation is being practiced in this advertising? The usual. Advertisers always emphasize the positives and gloss over the negatives of their products. In the case of prescription medications, this would be overstating the advantages (either the degree of benefit or the likelihood that a person would benefit at all) and hand-waving away the negatives (not just possible side effects but the real likelihood of serious injury or death).
There are laws of disclosure that apply to ads for pharmaceuticals. But television ads get past that with the aforementioned non-propositional content. The voiceover complies with the law and discloses all the horrible things that the medication could do to you. But it is accompanied by distracting and soothing visuals and music that have the effect of slipping the negatives right past you.
A good ad can make the possibility of your death seem like a small price to pay for the incredible vistas that this great new drug will open up for you. You can fall for their pitch even if you’re paying attention. But you're far more likely to do so if you are not. And if you are relaxing and off your guard, happily watching your favorite show and generally kicking back, you’ll be in a particularly receptive mood. And that much more unlikely to scrutinize a drug ad when one wings your way.
Those wonderfully persuasive non-propositional elements will sucker you in to swallowing the propositional ones hook, line and sinker. And the next thing you know, you’ll be at your doctor asking if Revivify should be an essential part of your medicine cabinet in the small yet measurable possibility of a zombie outbreak, and he’ll be silently adding you to his list of goofball patients. Assuming, of course, that he doesn’t already have Revivify at home in his own medicine cabinet.
So people, this is my suggestion. When a commercial comes on, recognize that you are being attacked and use your mute button. Then turn your head away and talk to the person next to you, or pet the furred one in your lap or at your feet. If you have better electronic equipment than I do, you can even wait a bit and then fast forward through the nasty things. Just don't watch them.
And don’t think you can outsmart them. How much thought and money have they put into figuring out how to get past your defenses? Uh uh. THEY ARE COMING FOR YOU, AND YOU WILL LOSE. So, especially in the case of drug commercials, cut them off at the knees. C'mon, how much do you pay for your television service? You owe them nothing.
--dr. diane holmes
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