GRSJ224Direct to consumer advertising

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Direct-to-consumer Drug Advertising

Intersections of medicalization with class, race, age and gender

Direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs refers to those TV ads which end in “ask your doctor,” if some kind of medication, ranging from virility enhancing drugs to bladder control, to depression, is “right for you.” In an era where smoking is seen so bad that ads for cigarettes have been banned, it seems outrageous that it is acceptable to advertise drugs which have serious – and some fatal – side effects. In 1990, the budget for direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceutical companies was $100 million and by 2004 it had grown to $4.1 billion, and it’s only continuing to grow (Mintzes, 2006, p. 13). In 2000, 91% of US individuals “report having seen consumer-oriented drug advertisement,” so these ads are everywhere and cannot be avoided (Mello, Rosenthal & Neumann, 2003, p. 477).

Characteristics of drug advertising

Advertising for drugs is considered unethical and banned in Canada, but Canadians are heavily exposed to these ads as they consume American-made television shows.

Women are depressed; Men need Viagra

These ads use emotional appeals instead of being informative. There are no ads for “serious” diseases. For example, you will never see an ad for AIDS medication, cancer therapy or malaria on TV. Ads target a mostly white, middle-to-upper class audience with spending power. Depression ads seems to be very gender-specific: women are depressed. Jin (2005) mentions that “DTC advertising provides limited and biased information, confuses patients by representing promotional messages as educational messages, disrupts the doctor-patient relationship, and increased health-care costs” (p. 350). What is more, ads for depression medication seem to target women and promote the idea that you can just “keep going” and fulfill all your life duties if you take a little pill every day. Some ads claim to put people back in control of their lives, but who is really in control? Perhaps pharmaceutical companies spending billions of dollars each year, or a patriarchal system which tells women not to take a break but take a pill in order to continue being super-women, super-workers, super-mothers, super-wives and so on.


These videos reveal depression as a gender-specific illness, as women express their inability to deal with their feelings and show how certain medications can help. It is important to note that anti-depressants and other drugs are wonderful inventions; however, it seems options for medical health should be discussed with a doctor, and self-diagnosis based on a TV ad can be dangerous.

“Sex-sells” Techniques in a Culture of Masculinity/Virility

These ads work within the western culture, which is a culture of performativity and aggression, both of which are supposed to define masculinity. Virility naturally declines with age. It is a fact that people, for most of human history, have accepted and dealt with this reality in a dignified fashion. Many men along history have expressed gratitude for entering a stage when they would be free from the demands of testosterone or the calls of the flesh, as an age of wisdom and mental productivity. Recently however, virility has become a biomedical project, an ambition which happens to fit in with “consumerist lifestyle projects,” an approach which pathologizes normal body functions as “sexual dysfunctions” (Marshall, 2006, p. 345).

By calling something a “dysfunction,” means transforming it into an illness or something that needs correcting so, “masculine vitality itself has increasingly become framed as a biochemical problem in both medical and popular discourses” (Marshall, 2006, p. 346). In the 1990s impotence came to be seen as a psychologically damaging condition, and Viagra started a chemical revolution in a trend of “anti-aging culture” (Marshall, 2006, p. 350). Viagra and like-ads promote the idea that sexual functionality is a “marker of successful aging” (Marshall, 2006, p. 346). Marshall (2006) contends that our culture is so obsessed with sexual performance that Viagra establish a “chemical basis for masculinity itself,” as the drug is pitched to an ever-younger market (p, 354-355).

DTC Advertising – Playing on people’s insecurities; promoting gender stereotypes

These ads, much like other forms of advertising, play on people’s insecurities, insecurities which have been created by the western cultural context. For example acne treatments with serious side effects, weight loss drugs or surgeries (such as lap band), bladder control (aimed at older women with high disposable income), and virility drugs are the most advertised medication. Some medication, especially over-the-counter medication is not treating anything at all, but simply says it puts people to sleep, such as the NyQuill alternate ZzzQuill.

Male performativity is not longer something relegated to old age. In fact, St. John (2003) reports in the New York Times that many men under 39 are used to popping a little blue pill because “there’s a lot of pressure to look good to make money and to perform well.” Drugs like Viagra, Levitra and Cialis all have TV ads which are at lest partly to blame for increased usage by men who are otherwise healthy using performance enhancers because they feel inadequate. What is ironic is that TV ads and the consumerist push by Big Pharma is not found at fault here. Instead, women are blamed for their being “more open to erotica, more articulate about their own needs,” and generally seen as sexual predators with overwhelming demands (St. John, 2003).

The question arises, if women are made to seem overwhelmingly depressed, then how are they also so sex-crazed that they push men to seek chemical enhancements to perform?


Jin, H. (2015), Antidepressant direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising and public stigma of depression: The mediating role of perceived prevalence of depression. International Journal of Advertising, 34(2), 350.

St. John, W. (2003). In an oversexed age, more guys take a pill. New York Times, Retrieved from:

Marshall, B. L. (2006). The new virility: Viagra, male aging and sexual function. Sexualities, 9(3) 345-362.

Mello, M. M., Rosenthal, M., & Neumann, P. J. (2003). Direct-to-consumer advertising and shared liability for pharmaceutical manufacturers. Jama, 289(4), 477-481. 10.1001/jama.289.4.477.

Mintzes, B., Health Council of Canada, & desLibris - Documents. (2006). Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs in Canada: What are the public health implications? Toronto, Ont: Health Council of Canada.