Pill Box

A new crop of TV commercials promises pain relief and pleasure. Why do you think they call it dope?

The cold-and-flue season is over, so it's farewell to the giant noses and mewling husbands in pajamas until next fall. The fertilizer and lawnmower ads have burst into bloom, joining the hardy perennials--allergies, athletes' foot, yeast infections, cars and weenie American beers. The TV commercial landscape varies considerably, however, according to what you tune into.

If you watch sporting events--as the person with whom I live frequently does--you enter a world dominated by skin fungus, Bud, big tires churning bravely through mud puddles and delicate skin in need of very special razor blades. This, apparently is the terrain of Mars, whence come men.

Women, on the other hand, inhabit a marketing universe dominated by feverish tykes and filthy kitchen floors they insist on mopping in blindingly white slacks. They're ignorant of the fact that you can get calcium simply by drinking milk and suffer from nasty personal infections happily discussed in wicker-dominated settings. It's silly but kind of cute, in an Eisenhower sort of way.

The commercials on the evening news, on the other hand, are terrifying.

The future that stretches before us, based on the ads wrapped around Tom Brokaw's tense reportage of the latest "developments" in the Middle East car wreck, is not an inviting one. Incontinence, impotence, inability to chew, severe torments from stomach acid, osteoporosis, chemotherapy (yes, they're now peddling supplementary nutrition directly to cancer patients), not to mention those "billions of allergies"--this will be our unappetizing lot. Nevertheless, we'll be well-groomed, thin and--once we've asked our doctor and taken our pills--very, very happy. We will smile widely, showing perfect teeth and revealing good-humored crinkles around our bright blue eyes. We will have entered pharmaceutical heaven.

As Michael Pollan pointed out a few years back in The New York Times Magazine, our feelings about chemical nirvana are complicated.

"The media are filled with gauzy pharmaceutical ads promising not just relief from pain but also pleasure and even fulfillment; at the same time, Madison Avenue is working equally hard to demonize other substances on behalf of a 'drug-free America' ... We hate drugs. We love drugs. Or could it be the fact that we hate the fact that we love drugs?"

Since 1999, when Pollan wrote this, the love, hate and contradictions have all ratcheted up. Take the hallucinatory ads for Nexium, a drug with no demonstrated clinical superiority to Prilosec, the usual prescription. (The science of naming is a whole other subject. Nexium, Lexus, Celexa, Celebrex, Celica, Clarinex. Two cars, an antidepressant, an antihistamine, an anti-inflammatory and a medication for gastric reflux, but if you didn't know already, could you guess?)

The argument for "asking your doctor" about Nexium is entirely conceptual: It's next--like Clarinex, get it?--and, well, it's next. And if you nag your exasperated physician into writing you a scrip, you'll become one of a hoard of tall, attractive elders in black capes who stand around on big black rocks, staring serenely at the sky as if waiting to be beamed up, whereas what actually happens is that the boulders start to slide together in a way that suggests either healing esophageal tissue or a group ritual involving mescaline.

My husband, bless him, resists psychedelic marketing by stubbornly refusing to understand it, and I've had to explain the Nexium ad to him several times. (The black-boulder ad is being phased out now in favor of, I feel, a rather less successful sequel set in a sinuous sandstone canyon. The scene lacks the grandeur and airiness of the seaside crags, plus, when the disturbingly stomach-like walls of the canyon start moving toward another, I'm reminded of the garbage-dump scene in Star Wars and I start worrying about the drug cultists within being crushed. This makes my stomach hurt.)

(In case you're interested, the real reason they're flogging that tempting purple pill so hard is that the patent on Prilosec is aging, while that on Nexium is still nice and fresh. Surprise.)

Even for someone raised by TV, such as myself, these ads are hard to parse, although after the Claritin-user wind-surfing through a field of wheat a few years back--Ed would just start swearing when that one came on--nothing should surprise me.

But no. I was recently astounded all over again by an ad featuring a race car driver peddling free samples of Viagra. Your doctor (that poor, tired man again) has them! You can have them, too! They come in packs of six! (The number six is repeated, joyfully, with a Sesame-Street-like insistence.) That's six, count 'em, six, yes, SIX, um. . . PILLS! (They can't actually say "HOT DATES!") Just ask your doctor!

We could shrug this off as the simple, childlike exuberance of unleashed capitalism were it not for the other side of the pharmaceutical-ad story, the vile anti-drug ad that tries to pin 9/11 on teenagers who smoke dope. (And you thought it was the gas pumps of America keeping Al Qaeda flush. Wrong! It's those sullen high-schoolers popping Ecstasy.) Somber, black-and-white, beyond heavy-handed (oh, where are the candy colors and singing flowers of the antihistamine ads?), this campaign is not only grossly hypocritical, it's profoundly dumb. Kids love to think adults are lying to them about drugs, and inept, guilt-based lies about drugs just give them all the more excuse not to believe a single word we say.

Back at Camelback High in the early '70s, we used to tell one another solemnly, "Studies show that 100 percent of all heroin addicts started on milk." Then we'd laugh.