Celebrex is a prescription NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) used to treat arthritis pain and recently, the manufacturer Pfizer has put out an advertisement to promote this medication and explain its risks and benefits. Perhaps the most unique quality of the ad is its length, running a titanic two-and-a-half minutes, often occupying an entire commercial block. At a time when marketers can convince dumpy men in 30 seconds that drinking watery Miller Light will get them ass, this particular advertisement is a non sequitur in terms of verbosity, even by commercial pharmaceutical standards. However, while the long-windedness itself is strangely suspect, the fact that a potentially life-threatening drug like Celebrex is being harked in the same marketing vein as a comparably benign prescription medication is vastly more disturbing.
Skin deep, this advertisement is no different from any other model pharmaceutical commercial. There’s the fingerpicked acoustic guitar, animated people living in a world without contours, scenes of throwing Frisbees to dogs, and the soothing voice we’ve heard before rattling off an oily-discharge side effect like it was an ice cream topping. In the case of Celebrex, that final attribute is the most worrying. While the arthritis medication won’t leave mocha spotting in your briefs, it does carry with it a far more dire prospect: death.
Celebrex is one of the only prescription medications being pitched on television that actually acknowledges a risk of not just potentially life-threatening conditions, but of death itself. The disarming female voice coolly states that Celebrex “may increase the chance of heart attack or stroke, which can lead to death” and that NSAIDs like Celebrex can “increase the chance of serious skin reactions or stomach and intestine problems, such as bleeding and ulcers, which can occur without warning and may cause death.”
Taking the first minute of the ad by itself, one might think it is an FDA-sponsored PSA warning to avoid Celebrex in lieu of a recall. Yet, the commercial purpose becomes evident soon after as the dynamic shifts toward actually promoting the medication. Since Pfizer can’t exactly state that Celebrex is all sugar and roses, it assumes the vague middle ground of the importance of “options” and Celebrex’s rank as “one option.”
The voice then states almost proudly that Celebrex has never been taken off the market and “for certain patients, Celebrex’s benefits outweigh the risks.” I’ve never heard a more preposterous statement made in a pharmaceutical ad after the acknowledged risk of death. The benefits apart from Celebrex’s relief of arthritis pain, stiffness, and inflammation are listed as a lower incidence of indigestion, abdominal pain, and nausea versus prescription ibuprofen and naproxen. In addition, patients can take Celebrex with low-dose aspirin. While those benefits are enticing, it’s hardly conscionable to advertise that they somehow “outweigh” the risk of agonizing death by perforations in the stomach lining.
Even if Celebrex is merely a bad apple in a greater barrel of positive and relatively harmless prescription medication, the fact that Pfizer is following the same commercial template for harking meds is disturbing in and of itself. The narcotic voice and warm melodies behind the clever animations clearly undermine the risk factors of a medicine geared to an aged demographic seeking to overcome chronic pain in whatever way they can. After the FDA required pharmaceuticals to state side effects of medication in ads, the modern pharmaceutical media model emerged. This model is effective at coating over the side effects with upbeat imagery, music, and reassuring testimony. And while nearly every prescription med from Vesicare to Zoloft adheres to this basic schematic, most medications don’t feature expiration as such a prominent side effect. Using images of avid bikers, happy couples, and cheery dogs is fine when the side effects are limited to headache and nausea, not intestinal bleeding and terminal heart attack.
One can only hope that Pfizer will incur enough criticism to play down its Celebrex marketing campaign and that a possible trend of packaging poison as pixie sticks will be averted. Content aside, if it takes any drug company over two minutes to explain why you’d benefit from purchasing its trade name, chances are that it’s something you should avoid putting in your body. And the advertising scheme should reflect that.