The other day a reader sent me a note about a curious ad that, he said, popped up during a recent installment of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? The spot seemed to be a generalized warning about chickenpox. At the end, the corporate logo for Merck appeared. The spot, in short, is another example of the Mysterious Pharmaceutical Company Ad, which has practically become a category unto itself. This particular ad directs the viewer to www.chickenpoxinfo.com, where among other things, you can view the commercial.
The ad: It's a short and simple spot. The imagery is a series of toys, brought to life by special effects. First, a rubber duck creepily cries and twists his head in sorrow or perhaps pain. Maudlin piano music plinks in the background as a female narrator says: "Complications from chickenpox can send kids to the hospital, with serious problems, like severe skin infections and pneumonia." The image shifts to a teddy bear. "But there may be something you can do," the narrator continues, and again the image changes, to a stuffed monkey, who lifts his head and displays a big, happy smile (also a little creepy). "Talk to your doctor about chickenpox." We see the Web address and, discreetly, the Merck logo, and the ad ends.
So what's the product? Not only is the name of Merck's chickenpox vaccine not mentioned in the ad, but I can find no mention of it anywhere on chickenpoxinfo.com. It's not until you click on a green button that says "Things to discuss with your doctor" that you learn the vaccine's name as you're transported to another site: Varivax.com. Why so coy? Isn't the Merck logo sort of a giveaway that the company has some sort of chickenpox solution on offer?
I checked in with a Merck spokeswoman, who assured me that the point of the ad is to convince viewers that "chickenpox needs to be taken more seriously" and not to push Varivax. About an hour later her office sent me a fax reiterating this point: The ad is there to "increase awareness" of the disease and "motivate parents to talk to their doctors." (Such products are also marketed to doctors, of course, so that they will know all about the vaccine when their patients come around asking questions, and Merck has made a "promotional effort" with doctors on behalf of Varivax.)
The reader who e-mailed me about this Merck spot thought it seemed less like an ad trying to inform parents and more like one trying to scare the bejesus out of them. He has a point. When the FDA approved Varivax in 1995, it noted that "chickenpox is generally mild and not normally life-threatening" and estimated the number of related hospitalizations at about 9,300 a year. That's a small number—unless of course your kid is one of the 9,300.
The drug ad onslaught. There's been a great deal of energy spent chewing over the implications of pharmaceutical advertising and what rules ought to govern it. I won't rehash all of that here, but the upshot has been a peculiar ad landscape: ads for drugs in which no ailment is mentioned, ads like this one in which an ailment is discussed but no specific help offered, and of course the many weird commercials in which some good-looking actor pauses in the middle of his spiel about how this or that drug has changed his life to announce that "Potential side effects can include shingles, colorblindness, or uncontrollable vomiting; ask your doctor for details," or some such thing. To me the Merck ad seems relatively tame and responsible when seen against that backdrop.
But the backdrop itself is another story. It's a favorite conceit of advertisers of all sorts to say that they're merely out to educate the consumer, as opposed to peddle goods. But is the current slew of pharmaceutical ads making health care consumers more educated, or simply more frightened and confused? I'm not really sure of the answer to that one, so, um … ask your doctor for details.