So you fellas want to advertise your drug on TV? Terrific! In case you
didn't already know, there are different advertising standards for
different drugs. Let me tell you about them.
If your commercial is for a prescription pharmaceutical drug, it must
provide a fair assessment of the benefits and risks and describe the
side effects that can occur when the consumer uses the drug as
prescribed. The Food and Drug Administration regulates these ads --
after they've gone out over the airwaves for a spell. If an ad is
misleading, the FDA has the authority to yank it off the air. But just
between you and me, as watchdogs go the FDA is on the sleepy side.
Unless you tell a whopper it won't even bark, let alone bite.
If you want to advertise the drug nicotine, the message must be 100
percent negative. Some of the best sponsors on teen-oriented shows are
the anti-tobacco groups. Governments give them big bucks to produce and
air commercials on the dangers of smoking and the wickedness of tobacco
executives. That's only fair, considering for many years that networks
ran nothing but seductive ads that helped persuade millions of
youngsters to light up. That wouldn't have been such a bad thing except
nicotine has one of the highest addiction rates. Now that wouldn't be
such a bad thing given that nicotine fiends, unlike crackheads and
alcoholics, aren't dangerous to themselves or others when under the
influence. Of course, the long haul is another story: One in three
smokers dies before his or her time, and that's reason enough to focus
solely on the downside.
The networks also run ads by the tobacco companies themselves urging
youngsters not to smoke. Mind you, they want youngsters to smoke.
Companies know they gotta hook 'em early, because hardly anyone waits
till adulthood to give cigs a try. No, these ads are an insurance
policy against future lawsuits: They can say, "Didn't we warn you when
you were ten not to take up smoking?"
One tobacco giant, Phillip Morris, also spends hundreds of millions on
ads to tell viewers about the million or two it spends to help women
battered by disturbed, drunken husbands and boyfriends.
Now let's say you want to advertise a mind-altering, recreational drug.
Boob-tube barons accept ads for illicit street drugs -- negative ads,
that is, produced for the White House Office of National Drug Control
Policy (ONDCP) by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The
Partnership is a band of dedicated advertising and communication
professionals who donate their time and talents to warn youngsters about
the dangers of those drugs that don't enrich the advertising industry.
The government has zero tolerance for balanced presentations of the
risks, benefits and side effects of marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine or
heroin. You won't see any Tinseltown testimonials about coke being the
perfect pick-me-up after a hard day on the set. The more negative the
ad, the better. Why you can even imply that all illegal drugs are
equally dangerous. For some strange reason most of these ads focus on
marijuana, which is the least dangerous mind-altering drug -- legal or
The other recreational drug advertised on TV is alcohol. Now alcohol is
alcohol, whether it comes in a shot of whiskey, a glass of wine or a can
of beer. Nevertheless, the networks decided long ago not to accept ads
for liquor, only beer and wine. Don't ask me why.
A while ago I said it's the job of the FDA to require pharmaceutical
makers to describe the risks as well as the benefits of their drugs.
Well, even though alcohol is a drug and the "D" in FDA stands for
"Drug," the FDA does not regulate ads for beer and wine. Now that could
be because alcohol isn't as dangerous as Claritin. No, wait a minute.
Even though the "D" in ONDCP stands for "Drug," that office doesn't
regulate beer and wine ads. Nor does ONDCP include alcohol in its
"anti-drug" ads. Now that could be because alcohol isn't as dangerous
as marijuana or ecstasy. No, wait a minute. It couldn't. Why even
Barry McCaffrey, the pot-obsessed former drug czar, calls alcohol the
"most destructive drug in America."
Anyway, the Federal Trade Commission oversees alcohol advertising. Did
I say oversees? I meant overlooks. Once in a blue moon it will take a
company to task for blatantly unfair or deceptive ads, but the FTC
believes "self-regulation" is best for brewers and wine merchants, who
couldn't agree more.
The brewers drew up a hard-hitting voluntary code that permits them to
run ads on shows where 49.9 percent of viewers are under the drinking
age and to use humor and animated characters that appeal to kiddies --
so long as the humor and characters also appeal to 21-year-olds.
Beer ads accentuate the positive. Make no mistake, there is a positive
side: It's a tasty beverage that gives shy guys the courage to talk to
pretty gals. If you use good judgment you can enjoy it in good health
for a lifetime. But somewhere in the ads you'd think a conscientious
corporation would insert the words "drug," "addictive" and "cirrhosis,"
or remind women that fetal alcohol syndrome is the leading cause of
birth defects. Maybe tell kids and teens they can die from an overdose,
and that alcohol is a prime factor in the leading causes of death for
young people -- not just drunk driving, but drownings, falls, homicide
Alcohol is, by far, our most widely abused mind-altering drug. Yet beer
commercials give viewers the impression everybody drinks -- white guys
who throw sofas out of third-floor windows and black guys who say
"Whassup," not to mention dogs, frogs, lizards, lobsters, and beavers --
and no one ever develops a problem.
Brewers are a lot like Norman Vincent Peale: They believe in the power
of positive advertising.
So, fellas, those are the standards. Now which drug would you like to
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in the New
York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada) and elsewhere.
Among his areas of interest are the mixed messages about mind-altering
drugs delivered by the government, pro sports and the media. He can be
reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.
©2001 by Dennis Hans