Little Plays in Four Acts

By John Gascoyne

You’ve settled down with your spouse and the kidlets to eat popcorn and watch a bit of after-dinner TV. The program, only so-so, invites lassitude, but the commercial jolts you into wide-eyed, amazed alertness.

John Gascoyne is a writer and lawyer living in Fort Collins, Colo. Learn more about John…

The ad is a cartoon representation of Joe’s gastrointestinal tract. There is blockage in the tract and we get to view cartoon doo-doo. You’re not comfortable with this and sideways glances reveal that the kids, also not comfortable, are looking at you, searching for a parental explanation of relevance and okay-ness. You have no idea of how to respond, so you sit there ignoring your parental obligation. Your spouse does likewise.

Back to the program and, too soon, to the next medical commercial.

What you are watching is an almost purely American phenomenon – the hawking of prescription medications over your TV set. New Zealand also allows such ads; no other country does.

Few, perhaps none, of these commercials are more than a minute in length. Nonetheless, almost all are carefully contrived plays, each with four discernible acts:

  • Act One – the bad thing – designed to scare the hell out of you. Depending upon the drug being peddled, it can be, among other things, an obstructed gut, serious skin problems, a heart that’s ready to blow, or a brain that’s about to fail you big time.

    Viagra is advertised on TV and in print. This advertisement is from 1970. Source:

  • Act Twohelp is on the way. If you will just invest in our product, you can be saved from the bad thing. This promise is underscored by fluffy depictions of people learning to smile again, going for walks in grassy meadows, or tossing their grandkids up in the air.
  • Act Threedon’t say we didn’t warn you. This contains a litany of at least some of the truly negative things that have happened to some of the folks who invested their retirement savings in our product. The litany runs the gamut – from itchy scalp to bloating, to worsening of the condition we want to save you from, to premature death.
  • Act Four – really upbeat again, striving to induce gauzy forgetfulness over the scares induced in Act Three. Trust us, just trust us. More kids being tossed into the air.

The sales pitch often includes weasel words, subtle exculpation. Listen for the words “have happened.” This is a smoothing over of the scary language used in Act Three. E.g. “Incidents of uncontrollable itching, horrible heartburn, and early death have happened.” No ad cops to the reality that the cure is sometimes worse than the malady.

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Remember this advertisement? “Lady, Your Anxiety Is Showing,” Ad for Triavil, a tranquilizer antidepressant in 1970. Source:

An honest statement would be more like: “In some instances, use of our product has produced negative results, sometimes serious ones, such as…… Nonetheless, you may benefit from our product and the odds are in your favor that there will be no downsides.”

Another part of the hype is, “Ask your doctor to prescribe….” Let’s examine this. You cannot, of course, obtain controlled medicines without a prescription. Consider that your doctor is hammered by clever salespeople touting their product, offering inducements to prescribe.

A 2016 New York Times opinion column said the drug industry, which annually spends over $5 billion on TV ads, spends about seven times more than that trying to induce doctors to prescribe their product. The OxyContin fiasco could not have gotten to epidemic status without many doctors over-prescribing it.

Long before television: Medical drug advertising in 1885 relied on printed materials. Source:

The American Medical Association once favored the airing of these ads. In more recent times, however, the AMA has come out against them. No one is listening.

Ask yourself why these ads are swarming your TV. Simple – it’s all about a money transfer – your money becoming the drug industry’s money – there is no stronger motivator. Yes, some or many of these products may produce some or all of the hoped-for relief. Don’t consider that as the main reason why you are looking at Joe’s gut.

Learn more

Why is your TV swarming with ads about prescription drugs?

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