From 50 media mentions to a billion in just two years. A PR success, but at what cost to health?

An article on CNN pinpoints the manner in which, it claims, pharmaceutical companies create an appetite for a disease in order to produce a hunger for its treatment.   If the bottom line is profit, the marketing approach described could be deemed an impressive success. If the bottom line is the public’s well-being it seems worth questioning if the word “success” is the best description for what this kind of PR approach accomplishes.

The article “How to brand a disease — and sell a cure” includes descriptions of symptoms of “recently branded” diseases one of which is “social anxiety disorder” which, it says, “was previously known as shyness”!

(Shyness itself can be a real problem, of course, for those who suffer from it, especially in extreme cases.  It needs to be overcome through some means. Here is an account of how one young person used spiritual means – specifically, application of The Golden Rule – to overcome a less severe case.)

The article claims that a PR company was hired by a major drug company ‘to convince shy people they had social anxiety disorder by putting together a public awareness campaign called “Imagine being allergic to people,” which was allegedly sponsored by a group called the “Social Anxiety Disorders Coalition.”‘  Celebrities were apparently paid to give media interviews about their own “social anxiety disorder” and  academic psychiatrists hired to lecture on the subject in top media markets.

The outcome?  “The results were remarkable. In the two years before [the drug] was approved for social anxiety, there were only about 50 references to social anxiety disorder in the press. But in 1999, during the PR campaign, there were over a billion references.”

If that is an accurate depiction of what has occurred, then such a PR campaign deserves kudos for cleverness.  I would be pretty chuffed if I managed to engineer a way to get a billion hits on this blog…!

Does cleverness, though, always equate with that Golden Rule which healed the young writer mentioned above of her shyness? Would it be “doing to others what we would have them do to us” – as Jesus expressed the Golden Rule – if we were able to popularise a limiting condition by giving it an an impressive sounding name and broadcasting that widely? Or does that just lead to more people unnecessarily taking on board, and playing out, a fear being given the oxygen of publicity – whether inadvertently or advertently?

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, had a huge respect for what the media could accomplish.  For that reason she launched her own newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor. Nevertheless, way before the phrase “PR Campaign” had ever entered the lexicon, she presciently saw the challenge to society’s well-being of what she called “Pangs caused by the press”:  “The press unwittingly sends forth many sorrows and diseases among the human family. It does this by giving names to diseases and by printing long descriptions which mirror images of disease distinctly in thought. A new name for an ailment affects people like a Parisian name for a novel garment. Every one hastens to get it. A minutely described disease costs many a man his earthly days of comfort. What a price for human knowledge!  (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 196:31)

Most people would put good health right up there in the list of ingredients that make life a success.  Shouldn’t we endeavour to reward behaviour that spreads spiritual, mental and physical well-being, rather than actions that can fan the flames of fear?

If the latter is indeed what is occurring through pharmaceutical campaigns giving brand names to common complaints, then we have transitioned from “unwittingly” to “wittingly” sending forth such “pangs”.  That is a step in exactly the wrong direction which should be urgently reversed for the sake of humanity’s spiritual and practical well-being.

None of this is to say that PR is a bad thing in and of itself. It is a service which can be used to promote better thinking, rather than undermining it. Click on the image below for a TED talk by Simon Cohen, founder of global tolerance, making a case for the inspirational marketing of promoting co-operation through love and compassion rather than the aspirational marketing of “commodifying happiness and fear”.

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Categories: Media Responsibility, Pharmaceuticals

Author:Tony Lobl

I write and speak on spirituality from my perspective as a Christian Science practitioner. I am also an Associate Editor for the Christian Science periodicals. I studied at the University of Surrey earning a BSc Hons Degree in Modern Mathematics before the impact of spirituality on health caught my attention and re-shaped my career.

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  1. Drug marketing objective, “Hypnotize the masses,” claims insider Shane Ellison | CHRISTIAN SCIENCE: WHAT IT IS, HOW IT'S MISUNDERSTOOD & WHY IT MATTERS - October 19, 2010

    […] week, my colleague in London, Tony Lobl wrote a commentary on the same CNN article titled, “From 50 media mentions to a billion in just two years.  A PR success, but at what cost to health…”  I recommend it; Tony brings further insight to this important […]

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