TV drug ads featuring "real" people - (7/9/2019)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Hank came into the pharmacy to get a refill. While he was waiting, he said to the pharmacist, “Did you ever notice how TV ads have more and more mixed couples on them? You know, black husband and white wife, Chinese girlfriend and Indian boyfriend. Even guys hugging guys. What’s going on?” 

The pharmacist is far from closed-minded. He believes in “live and let live.” Yet, he has seen these TV ads increase in frequency. Many companies now do it: Cheerios, Colgate, Apple, Bud Light, Kodak, Microsoft, and IKEA to name a few. Now, the pharmaceutical industry is portraying “unconventional” couples in drug ads. Such drug ads started early on when various antiretrovirals for HIV infection became available. There, you would see a gay couple washing dishes, making supper, and fondling their pet iguana, happy in the fact that their condition is under control. Good for them! 

But one has to ask oneself: Exactly what are the sponsors of these adverts selling? If the advertisement is for a brand new biological indicated for psoriasis or ulcerative colitis, does it matter if the patient’s partner is black or white, gay or straight? Sometimes it does matter. An analysis of US health data from 2001 to 2013 found that black, Asian, and other minorities are less likely than whites to see a doctor for treatment of the chronic inflammatory disease. The researchers found that among the 842 people with psoriasis included in the study, 51% of whites and 47% of Hispanics saw a dermatologist for treatment. By comparison, only 38% of blacks, Asians, and other non-Hispanic minorities saw a dermatologist for their psoriasis. Hence, by including a minority in the commercial, non-whites may be encouraged to get help. Also “while psoriasis is less common among minorities, previous research has shown their disease can be more severe," says study author Junko Takeshita, MD, a dermatology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

In terms of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease, racial disparity also exists in terms of both diagnosis and treatment. According to a 2014 review, minorities with UC can be 50% less likely to undergo surgery than whites, while minorities with Crohn’s can be 70% less likely to undergo bowel resection than whites. In Asian cultures, IBD is often seen as taboo and such a diagnosis is typically not shared to share an IBD diagnosis with family or friends. Not seeking medical help can result in dire complications and unnecessarily increased morbidity. Seeing a TV ad for an IBD drug that includes minorities – however subtle – can be the impetus to look for early medical care.

Of course, socially diverse ads for merchandise that every human uses can be distracting. This year, Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Cottonelle® toilet paper ran two ads touting their very necessary product. In these ads, a voiceover reads: “Down-there-care from Cottonelle…down there because today you meet the parents. So before they sit you down, give your bootie a confidence boost with cleaning ripples for a superior clean…” However, while one ad, featuring a heterosexual couple, ends with “…and makes you feel like the kind of guy she takes home to mother”, the second one, starring two men, ends with “…and make you feel like the kind of guy he takes home to mother.” Okay…

The pharmacist knew that an ad can be funny, cute, and memorable. But if the viewer remembers the ad and not the product, was it really effective in selling the product? More ads are welcoming everyone from amputees to Down’s syndrome kids. Whether or not the ad distracts one from the marketing message depends on how one relates to all the background noise. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Read more at


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