Breaking Down the Most Bizarre US Healthcare Phenomenon: The Cloned Drug Commercial
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Moving to the US, I knew one thing I’d begrudge grappling with was insurance-based healthcare. Especially having been privileged enough to live inside the NHS catchment area my whole life. But despite this country’s confusing and elitist healthcare system, there is one fantastic benefit: the wondrous, identic pharmaceutical medicine commercial.
Us Brits are pretty au fait with US culture, but it took living here for me to witness one of these medical marvels—I hadn’t even realized they were a thing. I’m not talking about those breezy, short commercials advertising allergy medicine or headaches, I mean the ones that feel like short films. Like a thousand stock images spliced together. Advertising hyper-specific prescription medication.
If this no longer rings a bell, I’ll try paint a picture:
Typically, these ads are split into two or three distinct sections. The first part usually consists of the star of the show having to deal with the negative effects of their illness.
These people are—understandably—so forlorn. Dejected souls who just can’t catch a break, whether they’re hobbling back to the bathroom instead of joining their partner and the in-laws for dinner, or just visibly upset and uncomfortable whenever out in public.
But: there is a glimmer of hope in their eyes. They can tell something’s afoot. Oh yes, these folk have a sixth sense—one that predicts when there is going to be a medical breakthrough that will help manage their afflictions.
They start to notice the uplifting music and narrator’s hopeful tone, looking up expectedly as exciting words start to fill up the screen—words that they can see just as well as those viewing at home. Because apparently these people are living inside a commercial and are completely fine with that.
With the more comprehensive of these cinematic experiences, a middle section of sorts follows. This consists of the star, plus partner (or sometimes parent), sat at a desk smiling maniacally at a doctor. Then they all look and smile and look at a computer screen and smile and sometimes gesture but always smile.
Every now and then there’s a bonus scene where you’re treated to a screen full of those atom-like globules as the narrator is saying something that sounds like they threw their scientific facts through a marketing machine one too many times. It’s hopeful-sounding nonsense that the target audience probably don’t even understand.
The latter part of the ad is always, unsurprisingly, the star of the commercial living life to the fullest after taking the medication. I think that’s what they’re getting at, at least. And living life to the fullest must involve copious outdoor activity, dopey hi-fives with family members and—of course—endless, endless smiling. Boy their cheeks must hurt after a day of filming.
This is the only kind of smile he can muster now after hours on set
So there’s a quick rundown of what scenes to expect. But there’s much more that unites these commercials than a vague structure.
For example, the camera style is very specific. Each scene is captured with a sweeping motion that pans across the whole area as if searching for fugitives.
Rarely do characters address the audience—or have any heard lines at all for that matter. But when they do, they’re never able to utter more than a few words before it cuts to another actor carrying on their thought. It’s like…do people who have the same condition have this connection that helps them finish each other’s medication? I mean, sentences?
This chap only gets four words before being interrupted by the next person
One of the most exciting moments in these commercials is when the Big Words appear. Everyone stands around looking in awe at the large text that’s materialized on the side of a building or, I dunno, on a runway strip. And—of course—everyone’s smiling. Like they’re sucking up to some alien pharmaceutical overlords who are advertising their goods using a massive overhead projector. The medical Martians have arrived to rid you all of your ailments.
All this smiling is part of an overall feeling of oppressive positivity that accompanies every ad of this ilk. One YouTube uploader titled this Opdivo video “you almost want what they’re curing.” Which begs the question: who the f*ck spends their time uploading pharmaceutical adverts to YouTube?
There is sadly one section in all these commercials that really poops on the positivity parade. It usually comes in somewhere just after halfway: the narrator speedily mumbling the many, many possible side effects. It was particularly unsettling to once hear “may cause death” nestled snuggly in between “mild rash” and “bloating”.
They’ve got sly though! Now, instead of labeling these potential consequences “side effects”, the narrator will say “see your doctor if you experience…”. Very sneaky.
That’s not the only time these morally dubious pharma giants try and dress up the truth. The stats they show are often weaker than the claims they’re supposed to support—so they try and find the best way to present their unexceptional data.
Take Skyrizi, which claims to help treat sufferers of moderate to severe plaque psoriasis with its actually fun and catchy song “Nothing is Everything”. The first stat states: three out of four people achieve 90% clearer skin in four months. Already, this takes a couple of reads to determine what it means. But, okay, I’m still following.
Listen to the song once and you'll be singing it in your sleep
This is followed by (in much smaller font) “nearly 6 out of 10 people achieve 100% clear skin at one year.” What? That’s crap! You’re saying that I could use this wildly overpriced medication for one whole year and there’s over 40% chance it won’t work properly?
You wouldn’t get away with those kinds of odds in many other industries. And apparently—in the moderate to severe plaque psoriasis market—Skyrizi beats the likes of Humira and Cosentyx. So it’s the best of a bad bunch.
The thing is, I’m sure the medication available in the UK for moderate to severe plaque psoriasis (bet you didn’t expect to read that phrase so many times today) gets just as inconsistent results as what the US has to offer. It’s just that, across the pond, you’re not subjected to companies attempting to market these products.
Honestly, the pharmaceutical drug commercial genre is a hoot. The industry has obviously found exactly what works when it comes to peddling its wares, and the cloned result is a joy to behold.
Never before have I seen so much uniformity. Maybe there’s a computer program that churns out these masterpieces—all you have to do is enter in your drug name and what it’s supposed to help with, throw in a few confusing stats and set the Smilometer to 11.