Coercion and Profits by Confusion
By Colin Taufer
February 2017

Open any magazine and chances are you will find its pages filled with ads from Big Pharma. This is because Big Pharma is far and away the biggest spender when it comes to magazine ads. In fact, it spends nearly double that of the number two magazine advertiser, retail and online apparel. In 2015 Big Pharma’s spending on such ads peaked at more than $1.5 billion, a 19% jump over the previous year.

Such advertising is known as Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising. Not only do we see it in magazine ads, but everywhere else you’d expect: radio, television, billboards and online banner ads. In 2016 it was reported that nine prescription drugs were on pace to break $100 million worth of TV ad time for the year.

In an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible, pretty much anything and everything which can be labeled with a drug’s name has been: scissors, cups, flash drives, pens, pads of paper, stress balls, calculators, you name it. In fact, the bulk of Big Pharma’s marketing budget goes for drug samples and gifts for doctors. Shire Pharmaceuticals once created a set of nesting dolls to promote its ADHD drug Adderall. The dolls were intended to promote ADHD as genetically inherited, a specious concept used to push adult ADHD.

One impact of such promotion is a serious conflict of interest that benefits the doctor but not the patient. A 2007 survey found that 97% of physicians have relationships with drug companies, but many still believe they are immune to influence.

While such advertising is seemingly everywhere, to most of the world it is not. In fact, there are only two countries in the world which allow Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising: the United States and New Zealand. The other 194 countries do not.

We’ve all seen the ads. They’re hard to avoid. If you’re like me, what happens when you read these ads are two things. First, the artful headlines, photos, colors and copy draw you in and capture your attention. Here’s an actual ad headline:

“Soar Confidently into summer and the new school year. Try Adderall…”

Then you turn the page and are overwhelmed and confused by the stark and hard to read page of safety information and indications. Written in tiny print, it is an entire page full of frightening side-effects (suicidal thoughts, seizures, diarrhea), hard to understand words (sertraline hydrochloride, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, tachycardia), unknown abbreviations (MDD, PMDD, MAOI), and all sorts of statistics and numbers.

This one-two punch of the pleasant artfulness of the first page followed by the bewildering and alarming “safety information” page leaves the reader confused and lost. A mental stress and discomfort immediately sets in leaving one more suggestive to the message of false hope proclaimed by the slick presentation. The confusion created by the analytical discord is perhaps “solved” by adopting a belief in the drug as the solution. “I guess I should give Adderall a try.”

This begs the question, given the obvious success of Big Pharma advertising, is the intellectual disorientation created by such ads intentional?

Seventy percent (70%) of primary care physicians, when surveyed, said that Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising confuses their patients either “a great deal” (28%) or “somewhat” (42%) about the risks and benefits of prescription drugs. And seventy-five percent (75%) said such advertising causes patients to believe either “a great deal” (32%) or “somewhat” (43%) that drugs work better than they do. These findings come from a survey conducted by the FDA published November 19, 2004.

Further confusing patients are their own misconceptions. A survey of consumers found that 50% of respondents thought the ads were approved by the government (they’re not), 43% though that medication had to be completely safe for it to be advertised (it doesn’t); and 22% thought that a drug known to have serious side effects could not be advertised (it can).

The point is amplified in this article from The Guardian urging health professionals to use clearer language. In particular, patients’ failure to understand what the doctor said or what they have read stops them from understanding the diagnosis and leads to misunderstanding or not spotting warnings about medication.

The conclusion is simple. If people really understood what psychiatry was selling – false diagnoses and damaging “treatment”- would they buy it?


Colin Taufer

Colin Taufer


Welcome to my monthly column. I am a career educator, writer and lifelong advocate for human rights. With each article, I hope to shine a light into the dark world of psychiatry to make stronger champions of human rights, to stir into action, to enlighten. As always, I appreciate feedback from readers. I can be reached at Colin@PsychSearch.net