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4 Creepy Ways Big Pharma Peddles its Drugs

Big Pharma uses ads that sow hypochondria, raise health fears and sell diseases to adults and their children.

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Some of Pharma's most aggressive advertising has been designed to convince parents their children's minor sniffles or wheezing are imminent asthma and require immediate and expensive drugs. To make the asthma drug Singulair (which also comes in a yummy chewable), the seventh most popular drug in 2010, Merck inked partnerships with the American Academy of Pediatrics and Scholastic, both of which parents consider neutral organizations and not Pharma mouthpieces. Merck also partnered with Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Peter Vanderkaay and NBA kid clubs to sell the asthma drug.

"A kid who's got what your kid's got is out doing what your kid's not," says one Singulair ad campaign. "Find out how you can help your child breathe a little easier."

If Singulair were not harmful, the huckstering would simply be a case of wasting money and overmedicating kids. But Singulair has been linked to both pediatric suicide and to emotional, behavioral and ADHD-like symptoms in kids, the latter likely inspiring parents to give their kids "the grape."

Of course, another kid-targeted campaign is for the vaccine against the sexually transmitted Papillomavirus or HPV, immortalized by Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann in hot exchanges this fall. Many object to the sexualizing of 9-year-olds, to government lining Pharma's pockets by promoting the vaccine (including overseas) and to the risks of the vaccines themselves. But the ads for Gardasil and Cervarix are also offensive.

Last spring, poster-sized ads for Gardasil on Chicago's commuter trains pretended to sell real estate in sought-after neighborhoods. A closer look revealed descriptions of women in those neighborhoods who thought they didn't need the HPV vaccine but did, positioning HPV not only as a general risk to the population, like flu, rather than an STD but as "hip."

HPV vaccine ads got even cooler when GSK rolled out Cervarix extravaganza TV ads and its " armed against cervical cancer" campaign with an Angelina Jolie-like model displaying a skinny arm with a Cervarix tattoo.

3. Be Like Me, and Can Your Beer Do This?

Prescription drugs may affect health, but they are still consumer products sold with the same marketing principles as toothpaste or beer. In fact, the wacky, "Can Your Beer Do This?" Miller Lite campaign of the 1990s, came back to life to sell the antidepressant Wellbutrin XR. In a glossy, color magazine ad, a young man rows his girlfriend on a scenic lake and lists the benefits of his Wellbutrin XR. "Can your medicine do all that?" he asks.

What does it say about the success of DTC advertising that people are assumed to have an antidepressant?

Experiential ads also sell prescription drugs like vintage ads for the "Kodak Moment," "Maalox Moment" and the old cigarette ads for the "L&M Moment" did. "Lunesta Sleep. Have You Tried it?" asks a 2007 ad in Parade magazine, elevating the experience to something akin to "designer sleep."

And just as celebrities move other consumer products, they have been deployed to sell prescription drugs. TV personality Joan Lunden and former baseball star Mike Piazza stumped for the allergy pill Claritin, ice skater Dorothy Hamill and track star Bruce Jenner for the pain pill Vioxx, and Sen. Bob Dole for Viagra. NASCAR figure Bobby Labonte also endorsed the antidepressant Wellbutrin XL in 2004. Yes, his medicine could "do all that."

But there has been a problem with celebrity drug endorsements, unlike product endorsements in which a celebrity like Tiger Woods or Martha Stewart could taint a product, a prescription drug can taint a celebrity! Did Dorothy Hamill know that Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attacks in users when she stumped for it? Did the model Lauren Hutton know that hormone replacement therapy causes a 26 percent higher incidence of breast cancer, a 29 percent increase in heart attacks, a 41 percent increase in strokes, and a doubling of the rate of blood clots when she shilled for it? Does actress Sally Field know that bone drugs like Boniva are linked to esophageal cancer, jaw bone death and the very fractures they are supposed to prevent as she  pushes them?

 
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