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Today’s headlines are about the 400% increase in anti-depressants in the United States, among people ages 18-44.   During the three year period of the study (2005-2008), eleven percent of Americans over the age of 12 took presecription drugs to cure depression and related conditions such as anxiety disorders.  There was not a parallel surge in the amount of professional psychological counseling during this period.


Why?   Of course the economy is terrible and there are reasons to be depressed but in doing the research for Now You See It, I decided to focus one section on direct-to-consumer prescription drug ads on television and I’m convinced that these ads contribute substantially to this increase.  It’s rare in the world for a nation to even allow direct-to-consumer prescription ads.  Only the U.S. and New Zealand do so and, in the U.S. this change in law happened in 1983, under the Reagan Administration.   The FDC, of course, was cautious, they wrote in requirements for naming the side effects in these ads, but no matter.   People don’t pay attention to them. They buy the drugs.   To understand more about this, I researched one anti-depressent drug–Cymbalta–advertised on tv.  Draft FCB, the advertising firm that makes the ads for Eli Lily’s Cymbalta, has won the equivalent of an Emmy (actually, several of them)  for its brilliant commercial.  It is also credited with increasing the market share of Cymbalta by 88% after the lanuch of the commercial.


I figure if anyone could teach us about attention and attention blindness it would be Draft FCB who understands our attention so well.  To write  “Learning from the Distraction Experts,” I looked at how the Cymbalata ad is made and interviewed several people responsible for its parts– narrative form, the camera angles, the music and visuals, and the acting style of the voice-over actress who reads the side effects for the Cymbalta ad, the most successful of the tv ads.   These ads tell us a lot about what we pay attention to and what we do not notice–even when we think we do.


Even people who are convinced they listen to all the negative side effects in these ads are twice as likely to be able to recall the positive rather than the negative side effects.  This is not an accident.  Everything has been crafted to hide the side effects in plain sight.   And Draft FCB and Eli Lily are both funders of some of the best research on attention.   Of course!  That’s why I profiled them.   If they understand attention, they know how to comply with the FDA requirements while encouraging us to do what is actually quite complex:   identify with the situations portrayed in the ad, decide that with this product we can be cured, and then get up and call our doctor, make an appointment, visit that doctor, and persuade him or her to prescribe us Cymbalta.   From a motivational and an attention perspective, the Cymbalta ad is sheer genius.   The 400% increase is the natural extension.


Am I being judgmental about the use of anti-depressants?  Not at all.  They can be life savers, especially when accompanied by considered and careful therapy by a professional.    But the increase is not simply by accident. That law changed in the US under the Reagan Administration, marking the soaring of prescription drugs to consumers.   The company usually thought to be most responsible for pushing this deregulation was none other than Eli Lily.


Rufen (ibuprofen) was the first prescription drug to meet the FDA guidelines for its television ad, meeting all the FDA requirements (passed in 1985) for what risk information and side effects had to be communicated to the consumer in the ad itself.    Thus began not just a boon in prescription drugs but in the fine art of commercial distraction.


The point of attention blindness is that we do not see what we do not see.  Even when we are certain we do.   A former student of mine took part in a test for a new prescription drug.   He and other subjects were shown two identical prescription drug ads.  The only difference was that, in the ad one group say, a cartoon bee merrily buzzes over the scene during the reading of the side effects.    Most viewers didn’t even remember the presence of this joyful little cartoon.   They were also 50% more likely not to remember any of the side effects.


Watch for that bee and other carefully orchestrated forms of distraction next time you see a drug ad.  But be careful!   Those who are cynical about the side effects, who joke and snicker at how stupid it is to hear long litanies of effects like liver damage or premature death, are still twice as likely to forget what they were –and just as likely as the non-skeptics to go ask their doctor to order them a prescription anti-depressant.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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