Big pharma uses celebrities and other sneaky ways to sell diseases that may not exist.
By Martha Rosenberg
Most of us have our guard up when it comes to direct-to-consumer drug advertising. We know the butterflies, sunsets and puppies in the TV ads are designed to distract us from terms like “blood clot,” “heart attack,” “stroke,” “seizure,” “life-threatening allergic reaction” and “death.” We are aware that more than half the ads tell us why we don’t actually want to ask our doctor about the new wonder drug.
Unbranded advertising, however, is much more insidious. Instead of selling a drug, it sells the disease driving the drug sales and sometimes doesn’t mention the drug at all.
Unbranded advertising often appears to be from the CDC and can even run free as a public service announcement thanks to its apparently altruistic message. The hallmark of unbranded advertising is it calls the disease it’s hawking (whether depression, bipolar disorder or restless legs) “under-diagnosed,” and “underreported” and cites “barriers” and “stigmas to treatment” which of course means sales. Sometimes it calls the disease a “silent killer” to scare people who think they’re fine. (Before drug advertising it was the opposite the medical establishment said you were probably fine despite how you felt.)
Do You Have Undiagnosed Hypothyroidism?
From Joan Lunden and Mike Piazza selling Claritin, to Dorothy Hamill and Bruce Jenner selling Vioxx, celebrity drug advertising is often phenomenally successful. No wonder the drug company AbbVie has selected actress Sofia Vergara to lead its hypothyroidism campaign.
“Emmy-nominated actress Sofia Vergara is helping to raise awareness about the importance of diagnosing and treating hypothyroidism,” read a press release last spring, “a thyroid condition that affects millions of Americans.” Her campaign, called “Follow the Script,” funded by AbbVie, “aims to educate individuals with hypothyroidism about the importance of being consistent with the treatment their doctor prescribes, and provides a ‘script’ to ensure they consistently receive the medication prescribed by their doctor when they visit the pharmacy.” Ka-ching.
While hypothyroidism certainly exists (as do other kinds of thyroid disorders) Vergara’s campaign capitalizes on the gray areas in its diagnosis and the well-documented human tendency to self-diagnosis, by planting fear and doubt. For example, the AbbVie press release says, “Thyroid conditions affect an estimated 30 million individuals in the U.S.” and “one in every eight women will develop a thyroid condition in her lifetime.” Yet Harvard Health Publications at Harvard Medical School places the figure at 12 million.
Commensurate with unbranded advertising—aka “disease mongering”—Vergara’s “Follow the Script” campaign website features “interactive polls, symptom and treatment information,” “stories and videos from other individuals with hypothyroidism,” and a chance for visitors to “share their own experiences.” In classic unbranded pill marketing, the site also provides “helpful ‘scripts’ for speaking with your doctor and pharmacist” — so patients don’t go all the way to the doctor and fail to ring the cash register.
AbbVie was formed in early 2013 when Abbott, located near Chicago, split into two companies, with AbbVie to concentrate on the blockbuster Humira, which made it $2 billion in one quarter of 2013. But Synthroid, the thyroid supplement drug behind Vergara’s campaign, enjoyed almost 25 percent growth last year and accounted for $153 million during the same quarter. Synthroid is the nation’s leading thyroid supplement drug despite going off patent decade ago, because it is widely perceived as more stable than competitor and generic versions of the drug.
Lest no potential customers miss the fact that hypothyroidism is an under-diagnosed, underreported major health problem with barriers and stigmas to treatment, Abbvie has also set up the “National Academy of Hypothyroidism.” The first thing visitors to the site will see is a slide of an overweight woman on a scale with the brazen headline “Is Your Thyroid Making You Fat?” Visitors will also learn that hypothyroidism could be causing their stress, depression and chronic pain just as lack of hormones or antidepressants caused them problems 10 years ago. There is even a perk for sufferers of hypothyroidism. The Academy tells them how to apply for disability benefits for their hypothyroidism. Just trying to help!…