When, sometime in the 1960s, the late Frank Stanton, overseeing news operations at CBS, asked his boss William Paley, the network’s founder, for more time for newscasts, Paley shook his head. “The minute’s just too valuable,” he told Stanton, meaning he wasn’t prepared to surrender one more second of commercials in the prime-time slot.
By the year of 1997, top executives at the major TV networks were gazing uneasily at the trend lines. Inexorably, it seemed, they were pointing down. The networks were losing audience share as people surfed to new choices on the remote. As with newspapers and magazines, such reliable sources of revenue as auto commercials and detergent ads were suddenly looking frail, as companies like GM and Procter and Gamble (America’s two biggest advertisers) began to plan shifts of their advertising outlays to new media channels. Consumers were starting to have increasing recourse to the Internet to figure out which car to buy and where to buy it. Shadows were looming over network revenues, maybe darker even than on that dreadful night, Jan. 2, 1971, when the congressional ban on advertising tobacco on radio and TV came into effect.
And then … a miracle! A very American kind of miracle to be sure, being the sort of miracle achieved by the usual megatonnage of campaign contributions from the drug industry, dropped into the pockets of the relevant FDA overseers in Congress, plus direct lobbying of the FDA by media companies such as Time-Warner. The miracle went by the name of Direct-to-Consumer Advertising, or DTC.
Broadcast advertising of prescription drugs in the United States had actually been legal for years, but in 1997 the FDA “clarified” the rules about alerting consumers to any risks in a number of deft ways that suddenly made the game a whole lot easier for the drug companies. Thirty-five years after Congress moved to curb pharmaceutical company advertising of amphetamines, antidepressants and barbiturates, the floodgates were opened once again. Through them poured the drug companies and their advertising dollars.
Soon, prime-time TV viewers were listening to the drug peddlers telling them to make haste to their doctors to request prescriptions for medical conditions, from depression to high blood pressure, by way of allergic reactions supposedly requiring Claritin. This prescription antihistamine was the subject of the first huge prescription ad campaign after the FDA opened the door in 1997. Its sales promptly shot up from $1.4 billion in that year to $2.6 billion in 2000.
At the end of each ad, risk advisories to the consumer would come in the form of an 800 number or the familiar cautions gabbled out at a speed probably intelligible only to ultrasensitive equipment at the National Security Agency.
Back at the start of the 1990s, the drug companies were spending $55 million on DTC ads. By 2003, the outlay had soared to $3 billion—by 2005 to $4.2 billion. Another $7.2 billion was spent in 2005 on promotion to physicians, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. By 2006, the outlay on DTC ads went to $5.2 billion.
DTC sales-pitching of prescription drugs has been a huge boon to the networks, whose revenues from this source have surged since 1997. 2007 saw NBC, ABC and CBS pull in $1.64 billion in prescription drug advertising, with CBS leading the pack with its $681,932,100, well ahead of ABC’s $449,902,600 and NBC’s $420,235,100. Fox lagged far behind, with $92,804,900.
For the drug lords in the big pharmaceutical companies—America’s most profitable industry—the FDA’s 1997 decision has, indeed, been a license to print money, bales of it. There are plenty of credible surveys establishing that as much as a third of consumers see an ad for some prescription drug on TV and then go off and talk to their doctor about it. Nearly half of the people asking for the drug they’ve seen advertised end up getting a prescription for it. One Kaiser study cited by the Lehrer News Hour disclosed the gloomy news that almost half these drug ad-watchers believe what they’re being told. The consequences have been as predictable as sales drives by the soft drink companies. Hype a product, and people buy it. Between 1999 and 2000, according to one study cited by Katharine Greider in her book “The Big Fix,” “prescriptions for the 50 most heavily advertised drugs rose at six times the rate of all other drugs. Sales of those 50 intensively promoted drugs were responsible for almost half the increase in Americans’ overall drug spending that year.”
Advertising, particularly in the area of drugs, thrives on the arousal of such unwholesome emotions as fear, insecurity, envy. The 1990s were a decade which could be labeled the Second Great Depression, although in this case the phenomenon was not economic collapse as in the 1930s, but the intensive drug-company-driven campaign to sell America on the idea that “depression” was the nation’s number one problem, to be relieved by hurrying off to the doctor to get a prescription for an antidepressant. With a few honorable exceptions, the press bought into this Second Great Depression in the crucial period of the early ’90s, solemnly citing “expert opinion” from such drug industry flacks as the American Psychiatric Association. Then, after 1997, communications moguls have gotten rich, feeding from the DTC trough, while occasionally raising their heads to bellow out their hymns to “freedom and independence of the press.” But what is “free” or “independent,” in any honorable use of the words, about a journalistic medium such as the CBS News division, whose journalistic act as touts for the drug companies that are helping to pay their salaries?
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