Is Marketing Making You Sick?

One day early on in my community pharmacy career, I helped someone select a sleeping pill in the over the counter aisle (OTC) in the pharmacy. 

He had chosen a purple box with “ZzzzQuil” in bold white letters in the center. Over the Zzzz’s, there was a feather-shaped like a crescent moon with stars surrounding the moon. This box has so many sleepy images on it; looking at it makes you tired. 

I said, “This is just diphenhydramine, the chemical that’s in Benadryl. It’s an antihistamine that makes you sleepy. I have something less expensive.”

He held onto that purple box as I lead him to the allergy section of the OTC aisle. 

I showed him a very plain looking pink and white box with “Allergy” written across it. 

I turned both boxes over so he could see the back, and I said, “See, both have 25mg of diphenhydramine. They are exactly the same.”

He looked at me as if I’d gone mad. Then he turned the purple box with ZZZZ’s on it back over, so the front was facing us and said, “But, this one is for sleep.” 

I held up the pink box like a trophy and said, “Yes, but this one is the same, and it’s ½ the price!”

He said, pointing to the white and pink box, “But that one is for allergies.”

“Yes, this chemical can be used for allergies or sleep. They are exactly the same.”

He headed off to the cash register with the purple box. This man was more influenced by marketing tactics than the healthcare provider trying to help him. All it cost him was some money. However, marketing tricks can cost you more than money. Not understanding the pull of advertising can cost you your health. 

The Benefits of Drug Advertising 

The marketing and advertising by pharmaceutical companies have done some good. For example, commercials increase awareness of rare diseases, like “NON-24,” a circadian rhythm disorder. Advertising can lift stigmas, as it has done for anxiety and depression, making these formerly shameful diseases easier to talk about. 

Even those boxes that hold medications you can buy without a prescription, like the one I shared above about diphenhydramine, serve an important purpose. OTC medications can save consumers both time and money. The words on the packaging have to be easy to understand as most people don’t know what the chemicals in the box are or what medical conditions they treat. 

The Downside of Drug Advertising

There is a downside to allowing direct to consumer advertising (DTCA). Only The United States and New Zealand allow drug companies to advertise to consumers directly. Drug commercials, in particular, perpetuate the myth of the quick fix. 

When you watch a commercial for antidepressants, you’ll see a dreary scene featuring a woman with slumped shoulders go from sad, desperate, and lonely to happy, fulfilled, and surrounded by loved ones in 30 seconds. 

Recovering from depression and anxiety takes time. Prescription medication can’t in and of itself fix this complex problem. Many factors must be considered and addressed.  But you’d never know that from the TV commercials. 

People are inundated with powerful messaging that seeps into your subconscious about how fast you can have something. This can prevent people from making the changes they need to make to get well. There is no easy solution for complex health problems. 

The pharmaceutical companies are one of the biggest spenders in advertising in this country. This article in Psychology Today argues for the ban on prescription drug advertising. There is no doubt that marketing can shape our perspectives as consumers. 

Back to the OTC Aisle

The packaging of medications can be misleading. Even the prescribers are confused. Plain Mucinex, for example, is for chest congestion. It loosens phlegm. That’s all the main chemical, guaifenesin, is capable of. But, somehow, that green snot-shaped animation seen in Mucinex commercials has people convinced that it will open up sinuses, stop a runny nose, and cure a host of other ailments. 

As if that weren’t confusing enough, the FDA allows a brand name to be used for different chemicals. For example, the brand name Advil used to only be on boxes that have tablets with ibuprofen in them. Ibuprofen is used for pain and inflammation. Now, a box with “Advil” on it can contain the decongestant phenylephrine, among other chemicals. So, when a doctor tells a patient to “Go get some Advil,” it’s no wonder patients often look confused as they wander the OTC aisles. 

Connection Not Commercials

If you’ve fallen for some of the tactics drug companies use, don’t judge yourself too harshly. Please remember that the healthcare professionals that you’ve hired are supposed to help you get and stay well. The ads you’ve seen are supposed to sell products. Trust the people you’ve hired: your doctors, your nurses, and your pharmacist. They have your back. Watch drug commercials with skepticism. 

Ask your pharmacist before purchasing something that you’re not sure will help you. The packaging is designed to be enticing. It’s not intended to help you understand if what you need is in that box or bottle. 

When was the last time you bought one of those cold and flu medications? Were you able to spring up out of bed and return to your normal activities like those actors in the commercials?

That’s the topic of my next video, which you can watch right here!

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