By Martha Rosenberg
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If you’ve ever doubted the dictum that the ads people like best don’t sell just look at the Got Milk campaign. The longer it runs, the more people quote it, the more B-list celebrities it poses with hokey props and sight gags—the less milk actually sells. In fact, teenagers drink 50 percent less milk today than 30 years ago, according to the milk industry’s own figures.
Of course, some fault lies with the product itself. Many simply won’t drink it—kids, dieters, athletes, health food eaters, ethnic minorities, allergics, drinkers, smokers, vegans, the lactose intolerant—and that’s before we get to the product’s underside of downers, veal calves, Monsanto bovine growth hormone, and pollution so bad dairy farms are called environmental crack houses.
But the advertising itself hasn’t helped either. Because underneath the celebrity rubber necking and twee copy is sloppy marketing and sloppy science, buttressed by heath-care professionals on the dairy dole.
Remember the “does a body good”/strong bones campaign, which told young women milk prevented osteoporosis? Turned out young women didn’t care about getting osteoporosis. They cared about calories and milk has more calories than a lot of other appealing foods. And it wasn’t true. Dairy calcium doesn’t prevent bone fractures in scientific studies and was correlated with increased fractures in the definitive Nurses’ Health Studies. Oh well.
Then there was the milk-as-Midol campaign, which showed husbands rushing to the store to get a milk fix for their PMSing women. Again it wasn’t true—dairy worsens PMS— and the sight of hubby’s insipid peace offering just made women madder.
Earlier this year, there was the 24/24 milk diet—“drink 24 ounces every 24 hours as part of your reduced-calorie diet”—whose scientific claims, tautologically, derive from studies funded by the dairy industry.
Full color ads with photos of soccer star David Beckham, American Idol Carrie Underwood, skater Sasha Cohen, and New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez are appearing in Sports Illustrated for Kids, Spin, Electronic Gaming, CosmoGirl, Blender, and Seventeen. Teenagers are urged to visit bodybymilk.com where they can win prizes like Baby Phat and Adidas items—and their schools can bid on sports gear, classroom supplies, and music equipment.
Now the milk industry is taking on soft drinks. “Soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are now the leading source of calories in a teen’s diet and these nutrient-void beverages are increasingly taking the place of milk,” says the press release. “Some studies have found that teenage girls who drink adequate amounts of milk and few soft drinks tend to weigh less and have less body fat than those who don’t.”
But there are a few wrinkles in the new campaign. Like the dangers inherent in “not as bad as X” marketing. If sugary sodas are bad, does that make milk good? What about sugar free soda? What about high fat or flavored milk? What about neither one? When it comes to marketing, the enemy of your enemy isn’t your friend.
Another Wonder Drug
The screaming woman in the ad is right out of Friday the 13th Part 2 or Halloween. Face contorted, mouth in an impossible shape, she looks like she’s being murdered—or doing the murdering.
Is it the remake of the remake of Psycho that everyone’s been waiting for? No, it’s the latest disease big pharma is trying to sell to justify a drug—a perfectly good drug that just needs people to take it. As everyone who remembers HRT marketing knows, the quickest way to sell a drug is to show out of control women (see: fear mongering; misogyny).
“Are there periods of time when you have racing thoughts? Fly off the handle at little things? Spend out of control?” asks the ad. “Need less sleep? Feel irritable? You may need treatment for bipolar disorder.”
Of course, you may also have had too much coffee or a bad day at the office. But mental illness makes a lot more money. Especially if you decide to take AstraZeneca’s Seroquel. Created in 1988 by tweaking an existing antipsychotic compound enough to merit a patent, Seroquel (quetiapine fumarate) has the three things big pharma loves most in a drug—a short time from R&D to sales, a daily ad infinitum dosage, and a high price: $11.82 a day or $4,300 a year. It was approved in 1997 for schizophrenia.
At first it was a blockbuster, accounting for one dollar in nine of AstraZeneca revenue. But then in 2005 that cheeky New England Journal of Medicine found that Seroquel and other atypical anti-psychotics (except one) had no advantage over older anti-psychotics like Haldol and Thorazine in 2005 (except price), including the putative reduction in rigidity and tremors that was their selling point.
The finding, part of a six-year National Institutes of Health comparative drug study, provided “a comprehensive set of data that were obtained independently of the pharmaceutical industry,” commented principal investigator Jeffrey Lieberman, adding insult to injury.
Around the same time the British Medical Journal announced that Seroquel and a similar atypical antipsychotic were ineffective in reducing agitation among Alzheimer’s patients, who constitute 29 percent of Seroquel sales. In fact, Seroquel was found to make cognitive functioning worse in the elderly patients with dementia studied.
Then there was the police blotter. Violent assault reports were increasingly mentioning Seroquel. One in Yonkers, New York in 2006 began, “The city jail guard who shot his wife before killing himself had just begun taking a powerful anti-psychotic drug that listed ‘suicide attempt’ among its possible side effects”—and lawsuits began piling up, 380 according to USA Today.
One young Seroquel patient told the Chicago Sun-Times, “It would take me anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to get out of bed each morning. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t be me.”
There was bad financial news too. AstraZeneca’s new blood thinner and diabetes drug were both stalled due to safety concerns, and Teva Pharmaceuticals, a generic drug maker, challenged Seroquel’s patent to the FDA.
So AstraZeneca did what drug companies that put marketing before medicine always do: came up with a new use for Seroquel (bipolar disorder) and new formulation (sustained release) and yelled breakthrough. Now all it has to do is convince millions of healthy women and men they should take a major tranquilizer, an anti-psychotic for schizophrenia, because they had a bad day. That’s before it gets to the kids.
Maybe the screaming woman in the ad has just seen the AstraZeneca marketing plan.