This year’s spoooooookiest pharma ads

If you watch pharmaceutical ads on television, you know that they often use scare tactics to sell their products. It’s been a Lown Institute tradition for the past few years to highlight pharma’s fear-mongering on Halloween, and this year is no exception. Enjoy these ads…but BEWARE!

(Check out the scary pharma ads from 2018 and 2017 for more.)

Beware of heart attack and stroke

“The end might not be as happy as you think…” That’s the ominous way this advertisement starts. The ad urges everyone over 40 to get screened for stroke and cardiovascular disease, because for 80% of stroke victims, “their first symptom is a stroke.” LifeLine screening professes to find undetected health problems by looking inside your arteries with ultrasound technology.

This ad is indeed frightening for anyone who knows about the harms of overdiagnosis. LifeLine has no data to back up their claim that screening for cardiovascular disease will reduce one’s risk of heart attack or stroke, because that data does not exist. The US Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend screening asymptomatic people for heart disease, because does not have evidence of benefit and is more likely to lead to unnecessary invasive tests and procedures. While a price of $149 for five tests might sound cheap, but you could spend $0 and prevent a cascade of further harm by avoiding that risky path.

Last year we highlighted an ad for cholesterol-lowering drug Repatha, for warning viewers that a heart attack or stroke could happen at any time. Clearly, Amgen, the makers of Repatha, have not changed their fear-mongering tactics. This year, one of their ads features a proud dad at his daughter’s wedding, being interrupted by a hand grasping his shoulder. It’s the paramedics to take him away in an ambulance because he’s having a cardiovascular event.

With Repatha, Dad’s risk of having a heart attack is 27% lower, the ad touts! But look at the fine print and the absolute risk reduction doesn’t seem as impressive. Patients treated with Repatha had 3.4% chance of a heart attack, compared to 4.6% for those not taking Repatha. And of course, the ad doesn’t share that Repatha has not been shown to lower the risk of death.

The meningitis threat

This ad does more than inform parents about the threat of meningitis for teens—it downright frightens them. The ad shows what can happen to a teen infected by meningitis, showing bacteria multiplying and infecting the bloodstream, with the word “DEATH” written in big red letters. This may be one of the few ads in which a little fear is warranted, since meningitis is a fast-moving and often deadly disease, and relatively few teens are given the second vaccination recommended by the CDC.

However, this ad is not just a public service announcement. The ad is part of a concerted campaign by Sanofi, which makes the meningococcal vaccine Menactra, and competes with GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine Menveo. According to Fierce Pharma, Sanofi’s vaccine sales dipped in 2018, and GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer are both developing five-in-one vaccines to protect against more strains of the virus. It’s likely that Sanofi’s campaign is designed to put their vaccine in the minds of parents before their competitors release new vaccines.

The elevator of doom

This ad for bipolar treatment Vraylar starts in a way you might expect from a horror movie. A young woman walks into an elevator, but instead of going up, the elevator short-circuits. The elevator begins to go up and down erratically, opening up on disturbing scenes from the woman’s own life that show her own emotional highs and lows.

We included a commercial for Vraylar last year, but this one takes the scare tactics to another level. However, it’s worth pointing out that this advertisement, unlike the ad from last year, mentions “restlessness” as a common side effect and warns about the potential for suicidal thoughts. That’s important, since akathisia, or extreme restlessness and agitation, is a common side effect of Vraylar, and can lead to violence or suicide if not recognized quickly.

The clock is ticking…

This Humira ad wants to alarm you—literally. Over the sound of ticking clocks and needling alarms, a voice-over reads, “If you have moderate-to-severe rheumatoid arthritis, month after month, the clock is ticking on irreversible joint damage.” But of course, there’s a drug for that.

Humira is among the most-advertised pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S., with Abbvie spending $35 million on ads for the drug in 2018. A 2018 report from I-MAK, a global advocacy organization, outlined how Abbvie has abused the patent system to delay competition for its bestselling drug Humira. 

They found that Abbvie filed 247 patent applications for just one drug, 220 of which were filed after Humira was already on the market. This would make more sense if the patents were for claimed as inventions for new indications for the drug, but almost all of the indications for which Humira is approved were already claimed by 2002. The number of patents filed so long after approval indicates a deliberate “evergreening patent strategy” to delay competition for Humira, said I-MAK. Now that’s scary.