Side Effects Include Denial


Why would Pfizer spend $100 million on two-minute TV ads that use a minute of that time admitting that their drug Chantix can cause “changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood,” “weird, unusual or strange dreams,” and “suicidal thoughts or actions”?

Because they have to, and because it doesn’t matter.

With the patent on Pfizer’s cash cow Lipitor expiring next year, Chantix, a smoking cessation pill, had been one of their big hopes for the future.  Chantix sales in 2007 approached $900 million; by 2009, it accounted for 90 percent of smoking cessation prescriptions.  But last July the Food and Drug Administration, which approved Chantix in 2006, said it had received 4,762 reports of “serious psychiatric events”—including paranoia, homicidal thoughts, hallucinations, 188 attempted suicides and 98 suicides—and it ordered Pfizer to put a “black box” warning on the drug.

What to do?  One tack Pfizer took was to launch a “help-seeking ad” that’s ” target=”_hplink”>Requip ad for Restless Leg Syndrome (relaxing lady, crossword puzzle, strings) with warnings about (this is my favorite) compulsive gambling.

Pictures are more powerful than words.  Language and logic don’t have the kind of immediate access to our brains that images and instruments do.  Feeling comes before thinking.  We can be as skeptical about marketing as we like, but media literacy isn’t much of a match for music.  No wonder Plato banished the poet in The Republic: he couldn’t think of a curriculum that could protect people from being enthralled by fiction, spellbound by illusion.  The bards who sang the Homeric epics were the ancestors of today’s Mad Men.

Robin’s harmless kitchen knife brilliantly neuters the suicide warnings, as does the rest of her happy-ending story.  In 2005, Duke University researcher ” target=”_hplink”>draft regulations declaring that ads will be judged by their net impression as a whole, not just whether they’re technically accurate.