This post is about promotionalism and the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the ideas come from a paper I wrote a couple of years ago (This Ad May be Bad for Your Health) published as a chapter in my book Communication in Question. I was compelled to revisit some of the ideas that informed the paper after listening this afternoon to the latest podcast from White Coat, Black Art – Dr. Brian Goldman’s always stimulating and informative program on CBC Radio 1. You can stream the podcast at the CBC site here.
The section of the program that most intrigued me was Goldman’s Q&A with the vice-president of creative development at the Brand Institute, which bills itself as “the world’s premier healthcare, consumer and business to business (B2B) brand identity consultancy.” Among other services, the firm develops catchy names for drugs and the conditions they are designed to alleviate thereby helping pharmaceutical companies build brand equity and value. According to the executive interviewed, a number of important considerations go into the process of naming a new drug: the name should highlight the product’s unique selling features, it should include embedded concepts that can evoke emotion, it should be memorable and easily pronounced in multiple languages, and it should have a “pleasing tonality”. A case in point is the drug Lunesta, the popular prescription sleep aid – it connotes lunar images and has a soothing tonality that also affirms the product’s “inherent therapeutic properties.” Roland Barthes must be spinning in his grave.
While you’re waiting for the podcast to download, here’s some promo from the Brand Institute’s website, broadcast as a news story a year or so ago on Fox Business and hosted on the agency’s YouTube page:
Of course, this story is about more than semiotics. Drug advertising is big business. The global pharmaceutical industry is the world’s most profitable stock market sector, with annual revenues exceeding $600 billion. Pharmaceutical sales in North America topped a staggering $265 billion in 2005, and in the United States, where 90% of the continental market is located, big pharma spent close to $5 billion that year on advertising alone. Millions of dollars can be made providing valuable treatment for genuinely sick people, but billions more can be made by convincing healthy people that there may be something wrong with them. Manufacture a risk, cultivate anxiety and deliver an easy treatment. It’s ontological security and a cool buzz in a bottle.
For communication scholars, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned, which I outline in the aforementioned book chapter. Most importantly, advertising is about more than just the promotion of goods or services that are designed to inform and educate consumers and pad the corporation’s revenues. It is a cultural technology that incorporates images, persons, and commodities into what is often a seamless discourse that blurs the distinction between products and people. The rhetoric of drug advertising encourages individuals to focus increasingly on their minds and bodies as sites of real or potential disease that demand constant attention and administration. Some argue that this serves as an effective tool of governance and as a potential technology for social control. It surely this demands more vigilance on the part of consumers to resist the promotional efforts of drug companies and advertisers, but it also requires more robust state regulation to protect citizens.