Media Tricks to Convince People to Buy Medicines

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

Pharmaceutical companies have crafty ways of advertising their products so that people are convinced to buy them. One of these attempts is to create a problem and to convince people that they have got it themselves. Interestingly, it is not a new strategy.

Image shows the concept of a medical doctor using a smart board.
Media advertising creates diseases to make drugs sell.
(Image: everything possible/Shutterstock)

An Early Case of Disease Mongering

In 2020, The Huffington Post mentioned an early example of this kind of marketing in their story, ‘Creating disease: Big Pharma and Disease Mongering’. In 1879, a new drug named Listerine was introduced as a surgical antiseptic. Then it was advertised as a floor cleaner, and next, as a treatment for STD. In 1914, it was marketed as a mouthwash, although no one had heard about its uses before. To solve this problem, the manufacturer chose to make use of the medical term ‘halitosis’, meaning bad breath. It was introduced as a disease that no one was aware that they had. But Listerine came to the rescue and cured it as it was not good for romance and made it likely that someone might lose their job. This trick made the sales of Listerine skyrocket since many people considered themselves suffering from halitosis.

The article published by The Huffington Post clarifies how this crafty advertising strategy used a sense of shame and failure to make people purchase the mouthwash. The final remarks of the report are very important: “why should someone care, and what is the harm of the so-called ‘disease mongering’?” Financial costs and psychological burdens on healthy people convinced of having an illness are among those harms mentioned in the article.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Mixed Media Coverage on the Same Story

Another example is from Fox31 in Denver, Colorado, in 2017. Titled ‘No More Double Chin’, the article points out how the double chin makes someone look older and heavier. It goes on to suggest a cure for the condition: Kybella, the “latest and greatest treatment for the double chin”.

Futuristic image of a medical doctor looking at a smart image of a human brain.
Media ads create a sense of shame and failure in people to make them buy particular products. (Image: HQuality/Shutterstock)

The same theme was covered in a Palm Beach Post story, which was labeled as an advertisement. But not all articles clearly distinguish their news stories from ads. For example, Popular Science ran a story titled ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Double Chin’. It stated that although double chins are safe and do not indicate any disease, treatments like Kybella are beneficial to help people get rid of a common facial feature.

So, how can someone tell if an article is trying to sell disease? In addition to the S elements of the skeptic’s toolkit, like source, sides of the scale, or saliency, there are other factors, too. For example, they try to suggest normal features like baldness or wrinkles are medical problems. Or they tend to exaggerate just how common or bothering something is. Although some normal conditions like shyness or dry eyes might be so severe that they cause serious problems for the person, there is a big grey zone here. It is in this grey zone that diseases are sold, and marketing efforts are focused.

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Not All Articles Try to Sell Disease

Media headlines can be misleading in that they sometimes try to convince healthy people that they suffer from an illness. It is a form of marketing disguised as a news article introducing a condition and then suggesting a new drug to treat the disease. However, not all articles deliberately try to do so as there have been some honest mistakes.

Two research scientists preparing and analyzing microscope slides in research lab.
Media advertisements exaggerate normal problems so that people buy their products. (Image: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock)

In 2014, a headline hit several news outlets stating nearly one-third of Americans have diabetes but do not know it. This is serious as it indicates that one out of three Americans has a condition as serious as diabetes! But as it turned out, it was not true. A few days earlier, the results of a study were published, indicating that a third of Americans who have diabetes do not know about their condition. This is a whole new story that was misunderstood by those news outlets. So, they retracted and corrected their stories as soon as they realized they had made a mistake.

Media tends to create hypes around many prevalent health concerns. For example, the gluten-free diet is vastly popular in the US as well as in other countries around the world. It is considered a healthy diet by many people even if they do not have a specific condition that forces them to avoid gluten. The only condition that requires a gluten-free diet is celiac disease. Many news headlines have expressed skepticism toward this diet. for example, Newsweek’s ‘Are Gluten-Free Diets Healthier, or Is It Hype?’; the BBC’s ‘The Great Gluten-Free Diet Fad’, and The Guardian’s ‘Gluten-Free: Health Fad or Life-Saving Diet?’

Although they might be contributing to creating a hype around the issue, any form of salesmanship cannot be found in them. There might be commercial interests to sell gluten-free products, but they are not overtly selling gluten sensitivity.

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Common Questions about Media Tricks to Convince People to Buy Medicine

Q: What is the gluten-free diet?

Gluten is a substance found in wheat products. A condition called celiac disease requires a gluten-free diet. However, many people consider it a healthy diet and follow it.

Q: What is disease mongering?

Disease mongering is a marketing trick used by pharmaceutical companies. The company creates an illness for their medicine and convince people that they have this condition.

Q: What is halitosis?

Halitosis is the medical term for bad breath. A company convinced people that they had halitosis to make them buy their medication.

Q: What is disease selling?

Media ads use disease selling to convince people to buy brand-name medication. They create awareness about that disease and create a hype around it.

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