U.S. note Direct to consumer advertising for prescription drugs is illegal in every country except the US and New Zealand pharmaceutical advertisers face a difficult dilemma. Because of truth-in-advertising laws, any commercial giving indications for use of a prescription drug must give full disclosure of side effects.
This means that drug commercials come in the following three flavors:
"Healthoxine. Because you're worth it." The "reminder" commercial alternates shots of flowered meadows, senior citizens, and doctors, all while saying generally positive things about nothing in particular and mentioning the name of the drug. This evades both mentioning the side effects and what the drug actually does. This type is far less common these days; most commercials that still do this are the ones that give you help down there, because, due to social mores, they can't directly name what their product does anyway. Some of these ads tried to skirt the issue by naming another drug indicated for the same thing.
And yet, apparently even after all this, enough people still want to get the drug that the cost of advertising is justified.
"Why live with the heartbreak of psoriasis?" A newer breed of commercial, the "help seeking" ad doesn't even mention the brand at all. Instead, it poses a public service announcement, offering a pamphlet you can receive — or now, a Web site you can visit — offering information on treatment options for a certain disease... "including a prescription treatment option." This one line is the real reason for the commercial; the pamphlet is an ad for the company's new drug, and the company wants you to read it since, in print, they're still allowed to hide the list of side effects in 1-point type. This kind of ad eventually becomes one for the drug in the pamphlet.
Of course, if you've actually talked with your doctor about your problems, then your doctor would already have told you if Stupidoxin was right for you. But pharmaceutical companies continue to heavily advertise because you might have been too embarrassed to mention the problem to your doctor until you realized there was a treatment for it. Or you might not have considered it to be a problem at all until you saw the commercial with all the other people who were horribly embarrassed by their yellow toenails/hairy knuckles/insufficiently-lustrous eyelashes/etc, and realized that you needed to get the cure. Or even worse, you might have told your doctor about your problem, but didn't request Stupidoxin by name, and so your doctor prescribed an equally-effective generic brand instead! (Somewhere an ad man is crying.)
Examples include (consult your doctor for more information):
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There is a commercial for a flea medication for dogs that actually has a list of side effects. By all means, we want Fido to be healthy, but a list of side effects on a commercial like that just feels odd.
The weight-loss drug Xenical exemplifies the second type of commercial. Its side effects included "gas with oily discharge, increased bowel movements, an urgent need to have them, and an inability to control them." Xenical's over-the-counter version is called Alli, whose listed side-effects are deconstructed here.
One asthma commercial mentioned that their product "may increase your risk of death." Death by what, they didn't say, but one assumes it could be everything from suffocation to explosive decompression, and they're just keeping their bases covered.
Some adverts (also prevalent in print media) simply state: "Ask your doctor about _________'s story."
Back in the '80s, when Rogaine was still a prescription drug, television commercials about it were pretty vague about what it did, except inasmuch as it pertained in some manner to an active lifestyle. Absent outside information, the most obvious conclusion to reach was that it had something to do with skiing. Calls to the toll-free number during this era required the the operator to mail the information. They couldn't give it out on the phone.
Channel Four got into a deserved bit of bother from Ofcom for advertising erectile dysfunction services before the watershed. The adverts in question resembled a cross between a relaxation tape and a personal loan advert, and it was only the constant use of words like "erection" that marked them for what they were.
Dulcolax a stool softener, whose ads contain soothing guitar chords and pictures of...animated women caressing armchairs.
One example of the third are ads on American sports evens for "Is It Low T?", which doesn't even push a drug and puts the drug company's name in small print near the bottom. It's pretty clear from the ads (and made explicit on their website) that they're promoting their treatment for lowered testosterone in men. The Fridge Logic kicks in, though, when you realize that everything that would treat said condition would be either a steroid or a steroid precursor. And they're sponsoring sports (particularly baseball) that have had serious issues trying to stop steroid use.
One Benadryl commercial says "What will you miss when you have an allergy attack?" Probably the same thing you'll miss when you're sleeping off that Benadryl, as one of the side effects is extreme sleepiness. As an interesting note, all "PM" versions of medication, like Tylenol PM and Advil PM, contain Benadryl because of the sleepiness. It is a simple remedy for dogs who are terrified of thunderstorms: the poor dog is too drugged and sleepy to be scared.
E-Trade (a stock trading website) had a commercial parodying this format. It was an ad for the fictional allergy medication Nozulla, featuring a woman frolicking in a field of flowers, while the narrator explained that "Nozulla may cause the following symptoms: itchy rashes, full body hair loss, projectile vomiting, gigantic eyeball, the condition known as "hotdog fingers", children born with the head of a golden retriever, seeing the dead, bone liquification, possession by the Prince of Darkness..." The scene pulls back to a man watching this ad on his TV, and he immediately turns to his computer and sells all his stocks in the makers of Nozulla.
In the mid-2000's there was an ad for a medicine to cure "social anxiety disorder" (what we used to call "shyness" and treated with beer). The lengthy and varied list of side effects seemed to consist entirely of symptoms which would make the hapless patient socially-unacceptable, including loss of bladder control, uncontrollable vomiting, bad breath, and most hilariously, "sexual side effects", which everyone naturally interpreted to mean impotence. So it was a drug that allowed you to go to parties and ensured you wouldn't be invited, that enabled you to talk to girls and prevented you from going beyond just talking. It was like an O. Henry story in convenient pill form.
Negi: Side effects may include dry mouth, nausea and loss of about a million brain cells...
A short arc in the The Boondocks comic strip concerns Granddad's attempts to figure out what the hell a drug commercial means when it says that its product will help you get "Back in the game". When Huey finally tells him, he gets sent to his room.
Bloom County had a Sunday comic about the incredible dangers of snorting dandelions, which included spontaneous decapitation and turning into Woody Allen. In the last panel, Steve Dallas snorts it anyway.
In Opus, the titular penguin takes a medication whose side effects include lactation, so he then gets a medication that prevents that side effect, but then needs one to prevent its side effect, until he has a chain of medications. In the last panel, someone points out that, of course, penguins don't have nipples.
One fanfic ad for viagra lists side effects including "stalker-like tendencies, dead goldfish, swords through your gut and the end of the world". It features Angel[us] (of course).
Pure Drivel by Steve Martin contains an essay entitled "Side Effects," which lists the side effects for a medication that relieves joint pain. The side effects start with joint pain and go on for about ten pages, including "May cause stigmata in Mexicans." "May cause compulsion to stand up in Catholic Mass and yell "I'm gonna whup ya wit' da ugly stick!"
The drug Dylar in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise has a stated effect that's pretty weird in itself: eliminating the fear of death. However, its side effects are even stranger: causing the user to confuse words with the things they represent, resulting in hallucinations. And it doesn't work for its intended purpose anyway.
Jon Stewart mentioned one drug for restless leg syndrome with the side effect of "increased gambling". He argued that if he had a gambling addiction, he'd take a drug that gave him the "jimmie-legs", rather than the other way around.
MADtv did a skit parodying this, not by concocting a ridiculous list of side effects, but by advertising the party drug MDMA (Ecstacy) as a Zoloft-like antidepressant. (It'll give you the serotonin boost you're looking for, but will also turn you into Dopamine Boy/Girl.)
Had a parody ad, this time for birth control. The voiceover is totally standard, but the video shows Amy Poehler repeatedly seducing men, women, and groups into her apartment, up to an entire wheelchair basketball team.
Another skit parodied the usual commercial side effects announced when taking these drugs. It stated that among the side effects would include hallucinations, in which it then described EXACTLY what type of hallucinations you would have: a horrifying surrealist nightmare ending in a choice between two doors. The wrong door leads to hellish misery, but the right one to eternal joy... and a moist, itch-free scalp. And maybe mild flatulence.
Although it's not for a prescription drug, the classic skit for "Happy Fun Ball" also parodied ads of this type...before there were ads of this type! (Of course, Happy Fun Ball is a completely different trope.)
Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report has a regular segment entitled "Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A." (a reference to his honorary doctorate of fine arts), sponsored by the fictional Prescott Pharmaceuticals, in which he constantly pushes drugs in the "Vaxadrin" family. The drugs have such side effects as minor heart explosions, vivid dreams of self-cannibalization, growing teeth ("often in the mouth"), spontaneous pregnancy, increased chances of vampire attack, involuntary Narnia adventures, and tracheal meerkat colonies.
The side-effects list was used in Becker as the main reason a split-personality patient didn't take his drugs - the "nice" personality was deathly afraid of the side effects.
Becker: It also says it causes irregular periods - are you afraid of that too? Jim: Now I am!
Pretty much any topical treatment for low testosterone has multiple side effects that can not only affect the man taking it but women and children who come into contact with the areas where it's applied. Stephen Colbertriffed on this at one point.
The humorous song "Pillagers" contains an ad for Liquiflox, a fluid to help you take more pills. Its side effects include "an urge to buy a house from Ikea" and "death and reincarnation as a slug."
The Amateur Transplants have a song advertising the fictional wonderdrug 'Paracetamoxyfrusebendroneomycin' (set to the tune of Supacalifrajalisticexpialodocius) which, though capable of curing almost every known disease (as well as 'reversing impotence' and making you 'good at fighting') has a number of side effects including 'nausea, vomiting and losing all your hair...heart attacks, becoming gay and growing extra breasts'. The song also notes that none of the animals the drug was tested on survived, but it's alright because they lied in the research paper.
The Austin Lounge Lizards lampoon these in their song and cartoon "The Drugs I Need" about a made-up drug called "Progenitorivox", whose side effects include (in song): "Agitation, Palpitations, excessive salivation, constipation, male lactation, rust-colored urination..."
The Coup's song "Ass-Breath Killers" is an advert for an anti-asskissing pill.
"The makers of Dr. Misoi's Ass-Breath Killers are not responsible for corporate losses or topplings of local governments and/or regimes"
In Warcraft 3, clicking repeatedly on the Priest unit (the human side's healer) eventually results in him issuing the following disclaimer: "Side effects may include: Dry mouth, Nausea, Water retention, Painful rectal itch, Hallucinations, Psychosis, Coma, Death, and Halitosis. Magic is not for everyone, consult your doctor before use."
Parodied in this "The Karnak Hates Everything Show" strip with Monoxyploxium. It doesn't tell you what it does at first ("Recently we decided that's none of your damn business"), only that you should buy it now because "You may very well be suffering from up to six medical crises of which you know absolutely nothing." Though apparently it keeps your lymph nodes from exploding and spraying relatives with fluids.
Side effects may cause hallucinations. I'd rather have the runny nose! Fine! I may have some snot on my upper lip, but at least I'm not seeing Elvis in my refrigerator! Dammit!
Foamy's friend Pilz-E rambled off a list of side-effects of all the medication he takes. He finishes off with death, but says "but I have a pill, to cure the death."
In a particularly amusing Avatar Abridged episode, Haru advertises a shampoo called Sexyfine that rearranges a person's DNA and turns them, well, sexyfine. Side effects included headaches, blood clots, green rashes, gonorrhea, albinism, thumb cancer, chocolate cravings, heroin addiction, pregnancy, ear mutation, increased risk of cyborg koala attack, the apocalypse, and Zutara.
Ultra Fast Pony. A "gelatin swingset" serves as the macguffin for one episode. Even though it's not even medicine, the series creator warns about its side effects in the video description.
wacarb: Get your own gelatin swingset today! (Warning, swingset may cause diabetes, heart failure, motion sickness, stickiness, nausea, lycanthropy, rising, falling, and being laughed at by your friends because you own a gelatin swingset.)
Havidol is a comic parody of the whole concept. It was created to demonstrate some of the problems with aggressive pharmaceutical advertising campaigns.
"Panexa. Ask your doctor for a reason to take it." A hilarious parody of this sort of ads, complete with an enormous number of Happy Fun Ball-like disclaimers and warnings.
A joke ad on J.K. Rowling's website includes the following fine print: "Healer's warning: side-effects include dizziness, vomiting, and tusks."
A viral site for the Pixar movie WALL•E contains an ad for Xanadou, a medication to induce shopping euphoria. "Side effects may include unpleasant taste, headache, drowsiness and dizziness, headaches, intestinal discomfort and cramping, temporary blindness, bleeding of the gums. Failure to use Xanadou during shopping specific excursions may result in a desire to wear drab clothing, redistribute wealth and property and attend socialist summer camps."
Teen Titans had a parody of a magical drug, Zinthos, during a Trapped in TV Land episode. Raven usually intones "Azarath, Metrion, Zinthos" when using her powers, the commercial advertised Zinthos as from the makers of Azarath and Metrion. Some of the effects of this drug mirror her changes when she loses control of her powers: Multiple eyes, disturbing visions, fits of rage (though not bloating, cramping or loss of hair, thankfully). It also says not to get Zinthos wet, or feed it after midnight, a Shout-Out to the Gremlins movies.
American Dad!: Do you sometimes feel irritable, restless, uneasy, sad, normal, or just plain not high? Maybe it's time to try crack!
(Crack may cause shivers, night terrors, gay for pay, heart palpitations, homicidal paranoia, or the sensation that you're on fire. Peeing blood and seeing your friends' faces as talking skeletons are possible side effects of crack. People who use crack may experience 5-7 years in prison where brutal raping may occur. If you experience one or more of these side effects, consult your dealer. You may need more crack.)
Jeff Foxworthy chimes in: "'For itchy, watery eyes, it's Floraflor. Side effects may include: nausea, vomiting, water weight gain, lower back pain, receding hairline, eczema, seborrhea, psoriasis, itchy chafing clothing, liver spots, blood clots, ringworm, excessive body odor, uneven tire wear, pyorrhea, gonorrhea, diarrhea, halitosis, scoliosis, loss of bladder control, hammertoe, the shanks, low sperm count, warped floors, cluttered drawers, hunchback, heart attack, low resale value on your home, feline leukemia, athlete's foot, head lice, club foot, MS, MD, VD, fleas, anxiety, sleeplessness, drowsiness, poor gas mileage, tooth decay, split ends, parvo, warts, unibrow, lazy eye, fruit flies, chest pains, clogged drains, hemorrhoids, dry heaving, and sexual dysfunction.' I'm thinking I'll just stick with itchy, watery eyes."
Another one of his bits was about a weight-loss drug with the side effect of anal seepage. "That's not even fun to say, let alone write on an insurance form. And not medical insurance—homeowner's, to explain why your couch is at the end of the driveway."
Robin Williams' routine for Fuckitol: "Fuckitol... for those times when you don't want to give a damn..." (Not to be confused with Fucitol.) He also talked about side effects, and how one list included "may cause anal leakage."
"That's not a side effect, that is an effect. It's like, "How you doin', Bob?" - "Oh, just a bit of anal leakage." - "Bob, you wanna get out of the pool right now?"
Some sleep medicines list as a side effect "drowsiness"... others list "insomnia". Think they got their bases covered there.
Also watch out, as they might cause you to "drive while asleep, with amnesia for the event".
It can also make cause lost weekends. And lost weeks.
Antidepressants "may increase suicidal thoughts in teens".
The immortal "Contact your doctor if you receive an erection lasting longer than 4 hours."note A normal erection basically involves stopping blood from leaving the penis. When the blood is not released back to the heart for too long, it becomes stale, and the penis itself could become gangrenous and begin to rot from lack of oxygen. The stale blood could also form clots, which can cause further complications when it finally travels into the rest of the body. That is if the pileup of blood still trying to enter the penis doesn't cause blood vessels to burst. This condition already has a name, priapism, and is considered a medical emergency. So see your doctor if you don't want to have your dick amputated.:
Several thousand comedians' response: "If I have an erection lasting longer than four hours, I'm contacting a hooker!"
The song from the quotes page has, among other side effects, "Do not have sex while operating heavy machinery" and "In case of an erection lasting longer than 4 hours, insert your own joke here."
One erectile-dysfunction tablet is warning against "delayed backache or muscle ache". Is this from the drug, or from the intended effect of the drug? "Doc, I have this pain in my back after the wife and I go for a face-to-face motorcycle ride, is it from the Erectrol?"
SNL, in a commercial for the fictional ED treatment Dr. Porkenheimer's Boner Juice, also pokes fun at that side effect:
Should your erection last less than four hours, up the dosage by as much as you like. In the rare instance that an erection lasts more than twenty-four hours, call a friend and brag about it.
From one extreme to the other: some medications for overactive bladder have constipation as a side effect.
One possible disease ended its list of symptoms with "and the feeling of impending doom."
The asthma medication Advair lists as one of its side effects an increased risk of Asthma Related Deaths. This is partly due to it containing Salmeterol.
Many antipsychotics have sudden death listed as a side effect. It can be sudden cardiac death, or death from choking because that reflex is suppressed by the drug.
The sleep aid Ambien lists "sleep-eating" as one of its side effects. Not listed, but known to have happened to at least one person each, are sleep-painting and sleep-sex.
There is at least once case of someone claiming sleep-robbery as a side effect of Ambien. As in, he was claiming that he robbed a store. In his sleep. And he's a police officer.
Speaking of sleep-sex, an Australian man got acquitted of rape because the defense claimed he had this condition.
Many birth control pills warn "Do not take if you may become pregnant." Well, most likely she's taking the pills because she's doing things that could cause pregnancy, but that's what the pills are for...
A surprising number of drugs have both weight gain and weight loss listed as possible side-effects.
A common topical antifungal medicine has, as a common side effect, dry, cracked skin. Doesn't sound too odd? The major symptom of the fungus it's supposed to treat is dry, cracked skin. This is the same reason why allergy medications almost always have allergy symptoms as a side-effect. It's a legal issue to prevent people suing if they're taking the medication for the wrong condition, so it doesn't help.
Acutane to treat skin: The list of side-effects include blood-red vision; suicidal thoughts & tendencies; and worsening of acne. Acutane worsens acne at first, then it gets better. Supposedly, some of the suicidal thoughts come from the fact that your acne is worsening so you think it's incurable.
Rheumatoid arthritis medications can potentially result in tuberculosis. RA medications are relatively strong immune system suppressants; the possibility of debilitating secondary infections go up just like it would if you'd developed AIDS. It goes away once you stop the drugs — but then your RA would come back. Bummer.
Midol, a medication for the alleviation of menstrual cramps and related symptoms, is marked "Not to be taken if you are taking medication for prostate cancer". Apparently it's useful for addressing other kinds of cramps, too, some of which men are able to get.
Saw Palmetto is a herbal remedy for enlarged prostate. Apparently "it can interfere with the contraceptive pill".
Some psychiatric medications may cause "unusually grand ideas".
A number of medicines may, as one commercial put it, cause men to develop female breasts.
"Do not operate heavy machinery" has been spotted on a container of, of all things, feline medication. One has to wonder what they thought the cat was doing when it was sober.