...don't even ignore 'em.
-- Samuel Goldwyn

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


On July 19 I published a post about the new GlaxoSmithKline over-the-counter drug alli (they're pronouncing it like "ally," and modestly presenting it without an initial capital letter), which is promoted as the first non-prescription weight loss medication approved by the FDA. I think the theme of my post bears repeating for emphasis. Hype? This is what I'm talkin' about.

Alli's main effect is to prevent your body from absorbing and retaining some of the fat you eat. It, in effect, flushes some fat through your body. As you can figure out for yourself, this produces some unpleasant and potentially uncontrollable experiences. Pretend you're a marketing-advertising professional. How do you sell something that does that?

Well, I'll tell you. The brilliant marketers of Glaxo and other pharmas are the best in the business. They have to be; they daily zig and zag through the minefield of semantic hazards and actually make you want to buy their clients' products.

With Alli (I'm not going along with the no-cap style), the immediate user experience is going to be nasty. So, the marketers had to turn this "side effects" problem into a plus. Well, if not a plus, how about just presenting it as a feature? Thus, "treatment effects" was born. Believe me, this is a breakthrough in the long and storied history of weasel words. But it's not the first, so it can't be thought of as a virgin birth.

When the marketers of Lilly-Icos' erectile drug Cialis decided to include the potentially disastrous side effect, priapism, in the side effects disclosure portions of their ads, I doubt it was because they were deeply concerned about the long-term health of their customers. I think they wanted to use the phrase "erections lasting more than four hours" in ads for a drug many men see as a sexual enhancement aid. No one at the FDA could effectively question their motives. That's what weasel words are all about, folks. (George Carlin noticed the paradox.)

Now, with the Alli campaign, Glaxo's selling diarrhea as a cure for obesity, and because the commercials are dead straight about the effects and offer...no, virtually demand that the user enter the drug's "program," they're expecting us to love the ordeal.

Of course, you don't have to follow the Alli program -- this is an over-the-counter drug, so you don't have to get the authorization and advice of a doctor to buy it. How many Alli users will consult their doctors about it? How many will join and rigorously follow the drug company's laudable instructions for its use?

What we have here is a drug marketing campaign--for a product that significantly distorts normal physical processes--that bypasses medical supervision. How tough was it to get this drug and its marketing past the FDA? Stay tuned.

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