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The Essentially Fraudulent Nature of Pharmaceutical Advertising on Television


I would estimate that at least half of television commercials are sponsored by drug companies. They propose that viewers ought to ask their doctor whether a particular branded drug is “right for you”. While the product may seem similar to others, there is a big difference from other products in what is being promoted and in the intended decision-maker.

As we know, individuals are not allowed to buy certain types of drugs on their own. They need a prescription from a licensed doctor. Why, then, are individuals being targeted in these television commercials? Is it not that they, the drug consumer, are expected to suggest or request that their doctor prescribe a particular pharmaceutical product? In other words, the party thought unqualified to make such decisions is supposed to be the driving force behind the decision which product to buy. Is that not a fraudulent proposition?

I am surprised that this question is not raised more often. But the financial health of the television industry depends upon a certain answer. If pharmaceutical advertising went away, the television producers might not have enough money to carry on their currently robust operation.

Let me confess that I think society would be better off with fewer drugs. A healthy lifestyle can be created by proper nutrition , exercise, and mode of living. But that would put a burden upon the individual to pursue such things. It’s easier to suggest that a particular drug will handle the situation. It’s also helpful from the standpoint of economic growth.

As we sit hour after hour in front of the television set, we are bombarded not only by programs that we want to watch but also by commercial messages laced into the programming. One becomes accustomed to not paying complete attention. But obviously the sales pitches for drugs must be having an effect or the drug companies would not continue paying for them. Our culture is saturated with unwanted commercial messages. It’s the price we pay for free entertainment.

The proper decision-maker with respect to prescription drugs is the medical doctor. Presumably this person has studied illnesses and determined which medications, if any, would best treat them. But it would be an impossible task for any person, even one well educated in medicine, to make competent decisions in this area. Medications do not have an obvious effect. There are so many types of illness and treatment that one can only guess what would help a given patient.

But commercial messages are designed to suggest a clear course of action. Convince viewers that he or she is suffering from a type of illness and propose a cure. It is, of course, an expensive medication that the sponsor is pushing. To make the decision easier, let someone else pay the price. Let the consumer, persuaded by the commercial, to load the cost onto an insurance company or the government. Let the public pay for my treatment. I see smiles from people working in the television industry.

I do not buy a pharmaceutical product because it gives me pleasure. I buy it because I think I am suffering from an ailment that the product will alleviate or cure. Whether that would happen is entirely outside my range of knowledge. That’s why we have trained medical professions who are competent in such matters. But the commercial messages are not directed at them. Presumably, they want me to pester the doctor into prescribing the particular brand of medicine that I see on television.

Well, that’s enough of my diatribe. I recognize that the television industry needs to be paid for its work and that TV commercials are a relatively painless means of obtaining revenue. But I do not think that drugs are the best product to push from a public-policy standpoint. If television viewers are the legitimate decision-maker, then sell a product that is useful to them or gives them pleasure.

Let me end by citing two television commercials that I consider legitimate in terms of the match between the decision-maker and product.

A company in Golden Valley, Minnesota, called “Master Pool and Spa” sells hot tubs. One frequently sees its commercials on television. Having viewed the commercial hundreds of times, I watch for particular moments such as when the blonde female at the center of this commercial briefly exhibits cleavage or the masked male swimmer strokes his way down the pool. Hot tubs may seem a decadent product to some but I would recommend this type of product over medications. Its enjoyment is directly experienced.

My second recommended product would be the Alpha Romeo automobile. Being a fan of Walt Whitman’s poetry, I have enjoyed the television commercial that shows a man taking to the highway to its tune after he has closed his lap-top computer. He races down the highway thinking: “The North and the South are mine. The East and the West are mine. All seems beautiful to me.” Arriving at the city at dawn, the commercial ends.

Not wishing to be a kill-joy, I recommend this type of television commercial and its product in terms of promoting human happiness. I do not recommend commercials that sell drugs. The government is being hypocritical in allowing the public airwaves to be inundated with drug messages when their audience, for good reason, is not allowed to make purchasing decisions for this type of product.


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