Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) earnings plunged 23% in the past quarter. Investors would have been even more depressed if not for the depression drug Cymbalta, Lilly's top product. Its sales climbed 22% from a year earlier. Credit for that goes to the power of TV commercials.
You know the ads. A person can be riding a bike, using a laptop, reading a book, running, or otherwise having fun, all to the sound of beautiful music. Suddenly, the music stops. Depression has struck. An authoritative voice explains there is a drug that can help. If you pop a pill, the music in your life will start again.
As an afterthought, the voice starts listing the possible side effects: nausea, dry mouth, blurred vision, muscle pains, insomnia, abdominal pains, severe liver damage, and other life-threatening conditions. I find myself first feeling depressed as the list rolls on. Good grief, who would risk taking the stuff? But wait! There's more.
The commercials urge us to "Ask your doctor." What else can go wrong? Apparently, the complete list of side effects is so long, it would take a mini-series to do it justice.
And what if my doctor is a consultant to the drug industry or served on the FDA panel that approved the drug, despite its life-threatening downsides? As a further form of protection, according to the Food and Drug Administration, all TV drug commercials must advise where we can read all about the drug and its side effects. That's why all the commercials end with the note: "See our ad in..." Where? The Morticians Association Gazette.
The litany of doom in these real-life TV dramas is a daring form of hard sell. One half of the commercial tells you how wonderful the product is; the other half tells you how awful it is. It might seem totally insane to give out such damning information in advance. Call it the chutzpah factor in medical advertising science.
All of this was made possible by the controversial FDA decision approving drug ads on TV in August 1997, based on an original idea approved by Big Pharma lobbyists. The FDA reasoning is that TV viewers have the right to know all about the new miracle drugs, and that they will make up their own minds after hearing both sides of the story.
Drug companies were more astute. They were counting on TV viewers not being the sharpest knives in the drawer. Seventy-five years of commercials aimed at making us buy too much of things we didn't need in the first place -- a basic function of TV advertising, not to mention outright lying -- has dulled our minds. Calling us sheep denigrates sheep.
Well, the folks at the FDA were wrong, as Cymbalta sales attest. What may seem a totally self-destructive way for companies to expose their product to the audience works in this crazy, information-overloaded civilization.
It might be time for the FDA to reassess the wisdom of its drug industry-approved decision to make the United States the only industrialized nation to allow TV drug commercials, except for New Zealand... if Big Pharma will approve.
That's not to say these drug commercials are without socially redeeming values and do not perform a public service. How else would I know, for example, that I should call the police if I have an erection for more than four hours?
I am not advocating putting a skull and crossbones on the screen before the ads start. Nor am I advocating parental warnings: "Take this drug, and you could die." It would be enough to include a laugh track before the curtain music dies out.