Health care? More like health scare!

On Halloween, we love to scare and be scared. But for pharmaceutical companies who use scare tactics to sell drugs, every day is Halloween. For a seasonal edition of Lown Weekly, we wanted to share some of the egregious advertisements that have been used to send people screaming all the way to their doctor:

The 2016 Novartis campaign called “Keep it Pumping” featured a TV advertisement warning that “with heart failure, danger is always on the rise.” As a man ignores the water rising around him, a voice-over says, “About 50% of people die within five years of being diagnosed [with heart failure].” Although the Novartis drug Entresto wasn’t explicitly mentioned, viewers were told to “talk to their doctor about heart failure treatment options.” Many doctors and researchers, including the head researcher on an Entresto study, criticized the ad for fear-mongering. 

This 2007 advertisement for Sereoquel, schizophrenia medication, features screaming mouths hovering in the air, representing voices in the head of a patient. A distressed parent is ostensibly telling her doctor, “My son says he can’t shut out the voices…we need your help.” Below that quote is the tagline, “When they turn to you, turn first to Seroquel.” This ad isn’t the only campaign for schizophrenia medication that uses fear to motivate. A 2008 print advertisement for Resperdal uses the image of an impending earthquake to show readers the danger of skipping medications. The ad urges patients’ caretakers to “Recommend Risperdal as his next option” to keep disaster at bay.

This disturbing advertisement was part of a “disease awareness campaign” sponsored by Pfizer that ran in France and Canada in 2003. The ad shows a toe tag on a person who died of a heart attack, with the warning, “For many, the first sign of heart disease is a heart attack.” The ad urges readers to get a cholesterol test, claiming that even healthy people with no prior symptoms of heart disease are at risk for a heart attack if they have high cholesterol. However, the health risks of high cholesterol (and the benefits of cholesterol-lowering drugs on the risk of heart attacks) are still being debated.

This 2015 TV advertisement begins ominously, “There’s something out there. It’s a highly contagious disease. It can be especially serious, even fatal, for infants.” As a family drives their new baby to visit Grandma, it gets even spookier – Grandma has turned into a wolf, a  la Little Red Riding Hood, and is about to unknowingly transmit her whooping cough to the innocent baby. Creators of the ad explained that they targeted grandparents because this demographic is especially unaware of the dangers of whooping cough. But as a pharma watchdog and blogger pointed out, GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine was only approved for adults 65 and over, making grandparents their primary market. 

He writes, “Eighty-three percent of healthcare workers had come to work while sick at least once in the past year. So why doesn’t GSK show a nurse in wolf’s clothing in its Big Bad Cough multimedia campaign? Obviously, it’s not a good idea for pharma to vilify its healthcare clients, but quite okay to portray consumers as villains and instill in new grandparents feelings of guilt!” 

If you want to be scared this Halloween, treat yourself to a horror movie or haunted house. But don’t get tricked by pharma into being terrified of health conditions that only their drugs can cure.