The Pop of King

The Pop of King

Stephen King on the worst ads on TV

Imagine this ad on Country Music Television, whose major daytime audience consists of women between the ages of 18 and 35:

We fade in on a pretty woman buckling her two young children into the station wagon. Cross-fade to her delivering them at school and waving goodbye. Cross-fade to her doing the laundry, then lunching and laughing with friends, then picking the kids up at school. Cheerful music plays as we become aware that she's pregnant.

Young woman:I have two kids, a husband, and a busy, wonderful life. And with number three on the way, I can't afford morning sickness or insomnia. That's why I take thalidomide. I feel great all day. . .

Final shot of the young woman sleeping next to her husband. The moon shining in the window transforms into a bottle of thalidomide.

Young woman: . . .and I sleep all night. [Laughs] In fact. . .I sleep like a baby. Thalidomide! Because life doesn't stop.

There never was such an ad, and for two reasons. First, when infants without arms or legs began being born in Europe and Canada circa 1960, thalidomide hadn't been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Second, the FCC didn't allow ads for prescription drugs on TV back then. Americans would have been thunderstruck at the idea of being huckstered on behalf of anything stronger than Bayer (for fast pain relief) or Alka-Seltzer (plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is).

So no happy thalidomide-using mother-to-be, but who could forget that brave schoolteacher, taking her Vioxx tablet every day as the Rascals sang, ''It's a beautiful morning''? Declaring to every back-achin' American within the sound of her voice — after all, Merck's U.S. ad budget is bigger than PepsiCo's — that ''I stayed with it!'' It fair made me cry, it did.

Who can forget the game little tennis player in the Celebrex ads? Or the happy Celebrex cartoon couple, bundled up and making angels in the snow? And you had to get behind the plucky guitarist in the TV ads who vowed, ''I can play the long version.'' The Celebrex slogan was ''I will not give in!'' What could be more American?

Ironically, the problems of Vioxx and Celebrex were reported extensively on the same network news programs that have become the No. 1 sales platforms for the 21st century's medicine-show pitch-daddies. (Of course, this magazine and others owned by the publisher of EW also carry plenty of drug advertising.) Just as CMT would be the demographically logical place to market thalidomide, CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox newscasts are great places to sell prescription pain relievers and ''sleep aids'' (street name: downers), because much of their audience is overweight, overstressed, and over 50. They ache, they lie awake, and they sometimes hobble to the bathroom in the morning. When someone tells them a pill will magically make it all better, they want to believe. Americans love a quick fix, and our love affair with snake-oil salesmen probably stretches clear back to the Pilgrims. And when the man says, ''Daddy fix, Daddy make it all better''. . .man, we love that. We love it.

But I doubt the news programs that provide the snake-oil pitch-daddies with fields in which to park their wagons have much love for David Graham these days. He's an associate director in the FDA's drug safety office who stated in November that Vioxx may have caused up to 139,000 heart attacks and 55,000 deaths. The figures are in dispute at the FDA — which approved the COX-2's to begin with, after all — but cut the numbers in half, and 27,000 is still nine times the people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

An FDA advisory panel has voted that the COX-2 inhibitors most consumers are familiar with from the ads should remain available, but the votes on Vioxx and Bextra were razor-close, and even if they do continue to be prescribed, it will likely be with ominous ''black box'' warnings like the ones you find on cigarette packs. Vioxx Schoolteacher, meet the Marlboro Man. COX-2's or coffin nails, it doesn't matter; the days when the stuff is advertised on TV may soon be over.

For my purposes, the effectiveness of these drugs is neither here nor there. As an observer of the pop-culture scene, what flabbergasts me is the ferocious enthusiasm with which such iffy products were sold, not to doctors, but direct to the consumer. The drug-daddy pitches have become as much a part of our lives as Tony Soprano and the Desperate Housewives. The cute little Nasonex bee who wants to cure your allergies (just watch out for nosebleeds). The sleepy-time gal nodding off with her Ambien (potentially habit-forming, but you can get a free sample). There's Procrit, for chemotherapy-related anemia (although you might throw a blood clot). Singulair, for asthma (side effects may include headaches and upper respiratory infections). Vytorin and Zocor, for those nasty cholesterol problems (as long as you don't have a weak liver, that is). And Cialis, which takes care of ED (ask your kids, if you don't know) but can cause four-hour erections. Ow!

Want a moral? Try this: If COX-2 inhibitors are dangerous enough to warrant black-box warnings or even outright prohibition, maybe we should have been worrying a little more about prescription-drug ads on TV all along and a little less about Janet Jackson's boob. . .which, as far as I know, didn't kill anyone.

Originally posted Feb 28, 2005 Published in issue #809 Mar 04, 2005 Order article reprints