Selling Disease or Buying into Health?

The following guest blog is written by my friend Steve Graham. Much of his career as an editor has been centered on spiritual reporting. He spent the first part of his career working in Michigan as an advertising copywriter in the auto industry. He writes from his home in Natick, MA.

A recent blog post on this site reported that the US spends $300 billion a year on pharmaceutical drugs, and that the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that permit the public advertising of prescription drugs.

Any American who has spent any time at all watching television is familiar with the slick and often lengthy commercials for these drugs. They may:

  • humorously depict the symptoms of the disease in question (as for example one that shows an elephant sitting on a person’s chest)
  • glamorize the product through indirect association (by showing, for example, a smartly dressed woman window shopping in an upscale mall)
  • inadvertently promise joy and hope (through shots of sun and flowers and smiles and picnics)

But you have to admit that the main purpose of this advertising is to sell products so that corporations make money. Viewers are urged to “ask their doctor” as an empowered consumer, rather than as a helpless patient.

I used to work in the advertising industry, and I can see many of the same efforts made to sell prescription drugs that go into the sales of cars and cereal and toothpaste. To firmly implant product names in the minds of viewers, for example. These are not the generic names for the medication, but rather sexy monikers that advertising people are paid lots of money to create.

As I write this, I must confess I can name off the top of my head the names of the following drugs, simply from having watched cable television news: Predaxa, Levitra, Lipitor, Boniva, Advair, Cialis, Ristacia, Cindecort, and Abilify. I can’t tell you exactly what they are all meant to treat, and I know some have probably ended their advertising cycles. But it’s a testament to the power of advertising that these catchy names stick the way they do.

Another aspect of prescription drug advertising worth noting: you often have to advertise the disease in order to demonstrate the need for the product.

This spring I frequently passed a particular Walgreen’s store. One day I noticed their electronic sign announced that “shingles shots are coming.” Not long after that, I noticed a commercial frequently appearing on television that set out to impress upon viewers the specific symptoms associated with the disease. People told in very graphic detail just how they’d suffered. The tone was alarming and potentially fear-inducing.

Now, I’m not mocking the severity of anyone’s bout with any physical discomfort. The point is simply that in order to introduce the availability of the drug for inoculation against shingles, and thus fulfill the advertising campaign that was subsequently rolled out through the spring and summer, I had the distinct impression that the disease itself (and the fear of getting it) needed to be elevated to a level of prominence. I doubt that there had been a huge increase in the number of shingles cases over the years. But the opportunity appeared to market the shots.

The Food and Drug Administration has three categories of ads and approved ways of making claims: 1) A “product claim ad,” which “names a drug, the condition it treats, and talks about both its benefits and risks”; 2) a “reminder ad,” which “gives the drug’s name but not the drug’s use”; and 3) a “help-seeking ad,” which “describes a disease or condition but does not recommend or suggest specific drugs.” Many advertisements do not in fact meet the FDA requirements for properly communicating to the public. You can find out about this here.

Again, prescription drug advertisements may sound convincing, and hopeful, to people who are suffering, but their main purpose is to sell the product. Nobody in an advertising agency can possibly know if the drug in question will be right for the consumer’s need. And the tracts of legalese that invariably accompany the lists of side-effects are often lengthy—and sometimes sound worse than the condition in question. “Results may vary” is apparently a mandatory disclaimer.

Increasingly, people are looking to complementary and alternative medicine in order to escape many of these drawbacks connected with prescription pharmaceuticals. And many people recognize a spiritual component to their health care, in whole or in part.

For those who rely on prayer, the expectation is that the help comes from a source and power beyond the physical. For those who accept God as a completely powerful and beneficial source, the distance might not be that great between partial and total reliance on divine help.

Then, suddenly, the scene shifts from profiting from the best in advertising and marketing to becoming more familiar with a power they find is available to them exclusively, 24/7/365.
 This is the Being that “saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” The “fountain” that does not “send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter” (James). The God that “heals all your diseases” (Psalms).


  1. Virginia McCullough says

    Thanks so much for this blog and the comments. Allow me share some of Mary Baker Eddy’s words — “If
    we can aid in abating suffering and diminishing sin,
    we shall have accomplished much; but if we can bring
    to the general thought this great fact that drugs do not,
    cannot, produce health and harmony, since “in Him
    [Mind] we live, and move, and have our being,” we shall
    have done more (Miscellaneous Writings page 8).

  2. Dave says

    The ads and methods that the industry employs can seem to be a double edged sword. When one hears the negative side effects that the “cures” bring on, most people I would think would conclude that illness is preferable. I’m with you Sue, I also mute the sound on the commercials every chance I get. The detailed descriptions of the illness are, well Mary Baker Eddy said it best when she stated, “A minutely described disease costs many a man his earthly days of comfort,” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures).

  3. says

    I’ve found that one of the wonderful contributions that I can make to my sense of peace, health and wholeness is to turn off the commercials or at least mute them.

    It is clear to me that there are no TV, Radio, etc cautions for diseases for which the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t have a solution, so there is little or no reason to believe that a problem is more prevelent or worse just because there are now commercials for products that claim to hold a cure.

    The practice of demonstrating or educating people to the symptoms of certain diseases is pernicious.

    Trusting in and contemplating health and healing has brought both of these into my life and Christ Jesus demonstrated so clearly that pharmaceuticals are not necessary for health.

  4. Sharla Allard says

    It was great to be informed by a former insider in the trade about how pharmaceutical advertisements entice society into buying its products. Thanks very much, Steve, for giving us such specific details.