Director’s Commentary: Inappropriate Advertising


by Howard Weissman, Executive Director

Though we didn’t receive much criticism for our Super Bowl ads, we did receive a couple of comments like this one: “Great, now I’ve got to explain to my adopted seven-year-old why Sarah is dead. Thanks a lot. Very inappropriate.”

Of course I, and most of the other 1.2 million viewers, felt differently. But it raises the question: What is appropriate to show our children? And what is an appropriate commercial to watch with a seven-year-old?

The average American seven-year-old has seen around 200,000 commercials, and of those 200,000, how many were more appropriate than our provocative ads? What are the messages we want our kids to be receiving? What are the products or services we want marketed to our children? Of those 200,000 commercials, how many of them were appropriate in the sense of making children’s lives better or urging them to make healthier choices?

If you’re a kid watching only kid shows, you’re being bombarded with TV ads for Skittles, Coke, Doritos and McDonald’s. Is that appropriate? Is it appropriate that, for kids, Ronald McDonald is the second-most recognizable fictional character (edged out only by Santa Claus), and that children can recognize McDonald’s by the yellow arches long before they can read?

Last year, companies spent more than $72 billion on TV advertising. It’s a lot of money, but large corporations know that after watching the talking gecko a few dozen times, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll think of Geico when you’re shopping for car insurance. And if you’re searching for an affordable car, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll think of Chevrolet or Toyota if you see enough of them on TV. A truck? Probably Ford or Ram. A luxury car? The folks at Jaguar hope you’ll think of them…and that you’ll remember that the British pronounce it, “Jag-You-Are.”

I suppose as adults, we’re all fair game for advertisers. We live in a market-driven economy that encourages consumption and competition, and we’re able to make free choices about how to spend our money or what to put in our bodies. But kids are not only more impressionable, they’re more vulnerable to the overt and covert messages found in TV commercials, and one would hope we’d try to insulate them from some of the most legitimately inappropriate messaging. In recognition of the power of advertising, certain products do have limits on when, where and how they can be marketed. Cigarettes and tobacco products are now banned from TV, and the beer and spirits industry is limited by a set of rules that was codified in the 1990s. Some of their limitations state that “beverage alcohol advertising and marketing materials should not depict a child or portray objects, images or cartoon figures that primarily appeal to persons below the legal purchase age.”

That makes sense. Unfortunately, in the alcohol industry, the people who sell the liquor write the rules; they’re both self-imposed and voluntary. The beer and spirits industry, in other words, polices itself.

So returning to the unhappy mother who found our ad inappropriate: Was she okay with the ad for Bud Light that brought back the ghost of Spuds MacKenzie, an adorable bull terrier who helped build the Bud Light brand? Though Anheuser-Busch denied marketing beer to children, they didn’t complain when, in the 1980s, store shelves were stocked with Spuds plush toys, Spuds lunchboxes, wristwatches, kiddie tennis shoes or, absurdly, Spuds-branded onesies.

And while that one unhappy mother didn’t like our ad, was she was okay with the ad from Yellow Tail wine that showed a friendly, anthropomorphized kangaroo flipping burgers on the grill or mingling at a party with a glass of buttery Chardonnay? Was THAT appropriate for her seven-year-old?

In the taxonomic hierarchy, kangaroos are not close to camels in terms of species, genus, family, order, class or phylum. But that Yellow Tail kangaroo was perilously close to Joe Camel, the  now-banned cartoon character that helped hook countless kids on a cigarette brand.

THESE ads are not appropriate for children, and leaving an industry to police itself is, apparently, like leaving the fox to guard the henhouse.

But of all the ads that are, to use that unhappy mother’s word again, inappropriate, the worst offenders—and the ads that most need to be banned—all include these three words: “Ask your doctor.”

These three words are found in ads for prescription drugs. Products you cannot buy, and products that, unless you went to medical school, completed a residency, and spent time treating patients, you are not qualified to evaluate. It is insanity that America remains one of only two countries on earth that permits drug companies to advertise prescription drugs directly to consumers.

The U.S. is less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume nearly 80% of all drugs. This has not led to longer life expectancy (the U.S. ranks 43rd), but all day and all night we are bombarded with messages that a pill will cure what ails us. Drug companies have solutions to problems we don’t even know we have. From restless leg syndrome to toenail fungus, there’s a pill for it. Men can take pills for hardening arteries, softening penises, thickening blood or thinning hair. There are pills for an alphabet soup of conditions that we didn’t even realize existed until 20 years ago: IBS, COPD, LowT, ED. We are deluged with ads about drugs for plaque psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetic nerve damage and a bunch of other conditions for which we, as patients, should NOT be treating ourselves.

Advertising prescription drugs normalizes and increases the use of pills as a first response to discomfort or dis-ease. Advertising prescription drugs helps inflate their efficacy and usefulness and, insidiously, it makes us more likely to demand prescription drugs from our doctors when over-the-counter medication will do just as well. This is, in part, why we come home from the dentist with Vicodin, when Tylenol will do just as well. This is, in other words, a partial explanation of how the opioid epidemic spread so far and so fast. The public believes that, if the doctor prescribes it, it’s safe, and it’s not just effective it’s MORE effective than the stuff that’s been around for years and doesn’t need a prescription.

How do we turn this around? In part, we need to have honest conversations. Between pharmaceutical companies and doctors. Between doctors and their patients. Between parents and their children. So, though the intention of our ads was not to anger people like the mother who contacted me, I commend her willingness to speak with her child, and not simply dismiss the opportunity we offered to her…and 1.2 million other viewers. Last year, NCADA educated over 76,000 children in schools, at leadership retreats, and through our counseling program. If you need a hand in speaking with your child about substances and the proper use of medications, we are, once again, the place to turn.

And if you want to remove the truly inappropriate commercials from TV, remove ads for prescription drugs. Please: stop forcing me to look at those two matching bathtubs. If you’re bathing outside, you should be spending your money on indoor plumbing, not Cialis.

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