“The reality is that most people hear more from pharmaceutical companies (16 to 18 hours of pharma ads per year) than from their doctor (typically under 2 hours per year).” writes Dave Chase in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call. Chase is critical of American’s looking for a quick fix and expecting a pill to solve their problems. He says that short doctors appointments and a bombardment of pharmaceutical advertisements on TV contribute to the mindset that any disorder or illness can be fixed in a matter of minutes with a quick pill. With how much we hear from drug companies, and how little time we spend with someone who is trying to work with us in depth to correct behaviors, change our thoughts, improve muscle imbalances, or make adjustments to help us live a more healthy lifestyle, it isn’t hard to understand why most people think of medical care in the form of a pill.
I am wary of pharmaceutical advertisements. I don’t really understand if I am the target audience or if medical professionals are the target audience. I’m not sure if the goal is to just normalize taking pills, or if the goal is to educate patients about a potential solution for a potential problem. I’m not sure if the idea is to get people away from taking generic medication in favor of brand name drugs, or if it is to get people to try a medication and see if it helps them.
However, I also remember seeing a study which suggested that drug advertisements did help improve people’s health literacy, and did lead to patients being more likely to ask about medications which would help them, without finding an increase in patients asking about medications that wouldn’t be helpful for them. `When primary care providers are stressed, have limited time with patients, and are likely to miss important details, having patients with goals and specific questions about beneficial medication is important for overall health gains and an improved doctor-patient relationship. Additionally, advertisements approved by the FDA and at least somewhat regulated are better places for people to gain medical information about a drug than a Reddit or Facebook post from a random person.
Ultimately, I think I fall on the side of banning direct pharmaceutical advertisements. I find they are overly broad, dangerously support the idea that all one needs is a pill to solve all health problems, and ultimately are more about pharmaceutical companies than about improving health in general. I’m not 100% sure this is the best course, but I’d put my confidence around 75% sure this is the best path to pursue. I don’t think it would hurt America to be a little less focused on pills as cures rather than focused on lifestyle changes, especially if we start to favor policy changes that would support more healthy lives.
Have you ever wondered why you see so many advertisements for things you cannot afford? I hadn’t thought about this very much before reading Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain, but if you look around you will see tons of ads for expensive things that many of us won’t end up buying. I won’t buy a Rolex watch, but I can picture billboards and advertisements for them. I know the slogan that both BMW and Mercedes have at the end of their advertisements, but I likely won’t ever buy a either car. Why are companies like BMW and Rolex advertising to people like me who don’t have the money or intention to buy their products? Wouldn’t it be wiser for the companies to advertise to people who actually wanted and could afford to buy the things they sell?
“When BMW advertises during popular TV shows or in mass-circulation magazines,” write Simler and Hanson, “only a small fraction of the audience can actually afford a BMW. But the goal is to reinforce for non-buyers the idea that BMW is a luxury brand. To accomplish all this, BMW needs to advertise in media whose audience includes both rich and poor alike, so that the rich can see that the poor are being trained to appreciate BMW as a status symbol.”
Sure, we can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the car, the horsepower, the sport performance, and the quality of the interior, but a big part of purchasing a BMW is the status symbol. If the true reason for buying a BMW were the list of things we might give as reasons for purchasing the car, then advertisers would not need to make sure that everyone knew the car was an expensive way to show one’s status. Ads could be targeted to the people who really care about car aesthetics and performance, not to people who are just going to shuttle a bunch of kids back and forth to soccer practice.
I try hard to be aware of the pressures I feel when making purchases or considering new purchases. I try to understand that I am pulled to make a purchase to show off my status. I also try hard to understand that owning expensive items, having a large salary, and being economically successful do not necessarily define my value as a human being. Understanding what advertisers are doing when they show ads to mass audiences about things that demonstrate our wealth and should be seen (in the mind of the advertiser) as desirable helps me keep my focus on what matters – being a good person, producing value for human beings, and avoiding negative externalities that arise from my desire to show off. This is why I think it is beneficial to understand the mind and what is happening in our heads when we see a BMW advertisement. By recognizing what impulses the ad is targeting and understanding the human drive for status, we can redirect our money and energy to things that truly matter, and away from hollow status markers.
Do you actually enjoy the things that you have? Have you become accustomed to the things in your life and do you even notice them? Does your stuff frustrate you and do you worry over your stuff? Are you living in a way where the things that you have are an aid to your life and serve to constantly make you a little more happy, or as soon as you have something do you feel remorse for spending so much to get it, and when you see it are you reminded of the cost to own the thing?
In my life, there have been many things that I wanted, but that quickly became part of my status quo and forgotten. Things that required me to spend time maintaining them or that did end up making me as happy as I expected, causing remorse over my impulsive purchase. It is remarkable how quickly a new home can become normal, and how our wonders at having a home can fade into frustration when we have to keep it clean or when another Friday night rolls around and we have nothing to do and no where to go so we dejectedly sit around inside. We spend a lot of time working to make money and often end up buying things that quickly become our new normal and don’t provide us with a continual source and stream of satisfaction.
“He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.” Seneca writes in Letters From a Stoic quoting Epicurus. It is when we become accustomed to the bounty from our wealth and success that we become dependent on our things. Those items which fade to our background and become the status quo start to be our masters, and instead of feeling grateful for having what we have, we just assume that having the thing is what life is supposed to be like.
One of the ways that I have been able to get away from these types of moods is by avoiding advertising. Everywhere you go and every time you watch something, somebody seems to be presenting you with an image of an ideal life. That life is always full of friends and laughter, but it is also full of new shiny stuff. We are constantly urged to buy a new car, a new fridge, a new coffee maker, better sheets, a better toothbrush, and each day we are exposed to ads for something new. Overtime, these advertisements push certain expectations for what a happy and successful life is supposed to be into our minds. By being aware of our stuff, our emotions, and the dizzying storm of advertisements we encounter each day we can push back against the feeling that we always need new stuff, and we can start to better enjoy the things we actually have.