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The creepiest TV commercial I know

August 29, 2011

Yes, the competition is very stiff, but I think I’ve picked a winner: the animated spot for Abilify, the antidepressant medication. Or, to be more precise, the “add-on treatment when an antidepressant alone is not enough,” as the Abilify website puts it.

Now, commercials for prescription drugs tend to be high in creep factor, if only for their invariably lengthy lists of possible side-effects. And commercials for antidepressants tend to be among the creepiest of this very creepy lot. But this Abilify spot… geez. It’s in a class by itself. The ad is animated in a very pleasant style which is, to me, faintly reminiscent of Charles Schulz’ work in Peanuts. But the content and the messages would have ol’ Sparky spinning in his grave.

As in every other antidepressant commercial, the sufferer is female. (The only exception to this rule: if an ad depicts several patients, there will be a token man or two among all the women.)

A friend of mine pointed out that when an ad is aimed at women, the product is meant to solve a problem or relieve an anxiety. Or, even better, create an anxiety and provide a solution. If an ad is aimed at men, the product is said to make their lives even better than they are. See, men don’t have any problems.

The Abilify spot also includes another standard reinforcement of gender roles: the female sufferer is rescued by a male doctor. Wearing a white coat. Usually with a stethoscope dangled around his neck. Because, you know, that’s what doctors do. All this is offensive enough, but there’s a whole lot more going on in this 90-second-long Abilify ad.

When I’m watching TV and the ads come on, I usually hit the MUTE button. Somehow, the absence of a soundtrack made the Abilify commercial even more compelling and disturbing. So I’m going to take you through the ad, focusing almost entirely on the visuals. My comments are in italics.

I realize that I’m going to be rather obsessive about the details of this ad. In my defense, I’d point out that advertising is a high-stakes enterprise and that every little detail is meticulously planned out. 

A woman, in early middle age, is standing outdoors. Green ground, light blue sky with scattered puffy clouds. She is wearing an olive-green top, blue skirt, and black low-heeled shoes. Her eyes are widely spaced and almond-shaped; almost Asiatic, although there is otherwise not a hint of the Orient in her. In fact, aside from her eyes, she looks thoroughly middle American. She has a wan smile on her face.

Of course it’s a woman. If antidepressant commercials are taken at face value, 99% of depression sufferers are women. Medically speaking, this is nonsense. But it’s the picture we’re shown, over and over again. 

Then a hole opens in the ground to her left. She frowns at it, as two heavy-lidded eyes appear in the hole.

She doesn’t move. A hole is opening inches from her foot and some kind of creature is inside. She frowns, but doesn’t move. Is she resigned to her fate? Is she really, really stoic? What?  

The hole widens. She takes a single step back, just beyond the edge of the hole. Her frown turns to an expression of sad resignation. A black shapeless body emerges from the hole.

Since she’s not making any moves to escape or fight, we must conclude that this bleak creature is familiar to her. To me, it looks like a sleepy younger cousin of the black oily thing that killed Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d run away; but maybe that’s just me. 

A legend sppears on the screen: “ABILIFY [brand] (aripiprazole) treats depression in adults when added to an antidepressant.”)

So what the hell does “treats depression… when added to an antidepressant” mean? I thought that’s what the antidepressant was for. Well, maybe it makes sense. But I checked Wikipedia’s entry for Abilify; it reports that the drug has been approved by the FDA for four different conditions: schizophrenia (2002), certain symptoms of bipolar disorder (2004), an adjunct treatment for depression (2007), and to treat irritability in autistic children (2009). Looks like the drug company is trying anything it can to find new uses for one of its patented drugs. This is where a lot of Big Pharma’s frequently-touted research spending goes: not in the hit-or-miss search for new drugs, but in the effort to find new uses for drugs already FDA-approved and still under patent. The classic example of this is Rogaine, the treatment for thinning hair, which began its life as a blood-pressure medication. 

The creature morphs into a sort of vertical black cloud, and then expands into a black balloon with a string beneath. The woman takes the string.

Acceptance of a tragically flawed existence? 

The string changes into a chain, the “balloon” into a weighted ball. It falls to the ground as she hangs on. She has a pained smile on her face. Then she pulls on the chain, lifting the ball. It arcs over her head and plunges into the ground, as she gamely holds on to the chain.

Apparently yes, acceptance. She’s not only not doing anything to help herself, she seems more attuned to the needs of this creature than to her own. 

A crack forms underneath her, catching one of her feet. She looks down with dismay. She falls into the earth, up to her chin. Then she partially emerges, up to her chest. The hole widens and the creature’s eyes appear in the hole next to her. The ground rises up, beginning to engulf her. She looks at the creature with resignation, tinged by dread.

And again, she makes no move to escape from the creature or the hole that’s forming a cone on all sides of her. This is a remarkably passive person. Guess that’s why she needs drugs. 

The creature is equally passive. Sleepy eyes, oozing here and there, disappearing and reappearing. Aha, symbolism! It’s a manifestation of her depression. 

A male figure approaches from stage right. He’s wearing brown shoes, brown pants, a blue shirt with red tie and, yes, a white coat. He’s in late middle age, has almost no hair, and wears glasses. The creature glances at him and recedes into the ground. The doctor’s smile has a bit of smirk in it. He reaches a hand toward her; she smiles at him.

Of course it’s a male doctor in a white coat. In drug advertising, maleness and a white coat are the universal signifiers of superior knowledge and wisdom. 

She takes his hand. He helps her up, as the creature looks on from the far side of the hole.

Nope, a woman couldn’t possibly get out of a predicament without the help of someone with a penis. 

A legend appears on the screen: “Some people had symptom improvement as early as 1-2 weeks.” The doctor folds his arms, still smiling; the woman looks back toward the hole, which rises from the ground and becomes the creature. The creature becomes airborne, floating beside her; she smiles at it. Then she folds her arms and looks sternly at the creature, which recoils and shrinks.

Already, the penis is working its magic. 

The scene changes. The doctor pulls down a filmscreen, which is showing the Abilify logo. The woman is sitting in a chair facing the screen, writing notes on a clipboard. There’s a second chair next to hers; the creature is sitting there with its own clipboard, taking notes. The Abilify logo is replaced on the screen by the figure of the doctor, who is speaking. Meanwhile, the “real” doctor is looking smugly at the woman who is watching the movie image of him.

This may be the low point of the entire ad. Good God, talk about narcissism. The doctor can’t be bothered to actually talk to the woman; instead, he makes her watch a film of himself. Bleccch. Creepy. 

One note about the soundtrack here. Most of the ad is narrated by the woman, describing her condition. For the “informational” part of the ad, the stuff about contraindications and people who shouldn’t take Abilify. the voice is provided by a calm, collected male narrator. Of course. 

The view shifts to the creature and the woman, side-by-side, each taking notes. The woman brings the pen to her mouth, then continues writing.

Me and my depression, strolling down the avenue. I don’t know what’s worse: the woman’s acceptance of the creature as her companion, or the creature’s willing participation in its own defeat. 

Check that: I do know what’s worse. It’s the woman’s acceptance. 

The scene changes. A hilly landscape in the  background, a mostly cloudy sky with a few bits of blue showing through. The woman walks in from stage left, smiling, and carrying a folded blanket. She is now wearing a pink top with the blue skirt.

Amazing. Abilify will not only lift your mood, it will spiff up your wardrobe.  

The creature floats into view behind her.

I suppose I should admire the restraint shown by Bristol-Myers Squibb. They’re not claiming that the drug will banish depression, just bring it under control. Temporize it just a bit. But still, the idea that the woman has to passively accept the constant presence of a nightmare creature… I shudder. 

And, of course, the subtext is that you’ll need to keep on taking Abilify indefniitely. Because if you stop, the creature will be reenergized and you’ll plunge back into the earth. So keep that cash flow coming, ladies!

Then comes a man — presumably her husband — walking with a walking stick, a thin smile on his face. She motions to him, to follow her.

Behind the man, a girl emerges; a young smiling teenager with hair tied behind her head. The woman, the creature, the man and the girl — in that order — move across the screen.

Do they not see the black, heavy-lidded creature? (In which case, I guess it’s a figment of her imagination visible only to her and her full-of-penisy-wisdom doctor?) Do they see it, and smilingly accept it as part of the family? Either way, ick.

The scene shifts a bit. They enter a flat open area with a pathway going just behind them and winding up a distant hill. There are two figures in the far background. The man is now seen to be carrying a picnic basket. The creature moves behind the woman to her right side.

The woman unfurls the blanket and spreads it on the ground. A wide path, just to their right, leads off into the distance behind them. The woman and girl sit down on the blanket. The creature hovers to the woman’s right. The man sets down the picnic basket and sits on the blanket.

It’s hardly a family picnic if you don’t bring along your amorphous black creature. Also, another soundtrack note: as the family prepares for its picnic, the male narrator is reciting a list of possible side effects. So you see the happy family outing, and you hear “dizziness, seizures, impaired judgment,” etc. This is a presumably deliberate juxtaposition of physical peril with warm fuzzy visuals, most likely an attempt to soften the impact of the mandatory warning.

The scene shifts. Closeup of the woman speaking directly into the “camera” with a serious look on her face. The creature hovers over her shoulder.

Just me and my shadow… 

The scene shifts back to take in the landscape, with the family and creature in the foreground. Then the creature dips down into the ground, turning into a hole with eyes.

Oooh, shape-shifter! My creepy-meter just pegged again. 

The hole/creature moves from behind the woman to right beside her. A pair of blue stripes (part of the Abilify logo) covers the wide path. The woman reaches for the picnic basket.

The scene disappears, replaced with the Abilify logo, website, and toll-free number.  The end.

This may seem a rather excessive takedown for a television ad, when it’s practically in their nature to be at least a little bit creepy and annoying. But there are three reasons why Abilify impelled me to get out my rhetorical elephant gun. 

First, the advertising industry devotes tremendous resources to propping up gender stereotypes in order to create market niches for an endless array of products, from probiotic yogurt to pisswater beer and from gaudy jewelry to foul aftershave. These ads have a tremendous cumulative effect beyond the simple moving of product; they also make people believe that they need to conform to stereotypes. When, in fact, most people are naturally somewhere in the middle. Yes, there are differences between men and women; but they are far less dramatic than commonly depicted in advertising. In reality, the Venn diagram of “Men” and “Women” has a whole lot of overlap. There are plenty of men who like to dress nice and listen to opera, and plenty of women who change their own oil and watch football. 

Second, Big Pharma spends an unconscionable amount of money on direct consumer advertising. I have no idea how much, but I’ll bet it dwarfs their constantly-hyped research budgets. This is money that does not need to be spent. It is WASTE in our health-care system. People complain a lot about waste, fraud and abuse in government; I contend that there is a whole lot more waste, fraud and abuse in the private sector. Prescription drug advertising is just one example. 

Third, advertising prescription drugs to consumers is fundamentally inappropriate. The average consumer has no basis for judging the veracity of a drug ad. Doctors have the necessary expertise. (Well, that’s their assigned role, anyway.) When drug ads work, two things happen: Doctors get hounded for unnecessary prescriptions, and health-care dollars are spent on costly patented drugs as opposed to generics, which are often just as good or even better and are ALWAYS much cheaper. 

There: the creepiest commercial on television. I rest my case.

One Comment
  1. Parker51 permalink

    Seems like there may be a more subtle explanation for the use of the filmscreen. The advertising agency is exploiting “deceptive framing” to get around so-called “white coat” rules in advertising. The medical disclaimers are not being presented by a doctor, or a fictional representation of a doctor. Rather the commercial is pushing into an inner reference frame to give a double-fictional representation of a doctor, which somehow does not run afoul of the FTC or FDA.

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