The Fine art of Branding a Disease

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Take some time and think about the fact that, pharmaceutical companies spend twice as much on marketing than on research. In part, these costs often go toward hiring expensive PR firms, celebrity spokespeople, physicians, and academics to promote their products.

As CNN reported, to market its antidepressant Paxil, GlaxoSmithKline hired a PR firm to create a “public awareness campaign” about an “under-diagnosed” disease. The disease? Social anxiety disorder … previously known as shyness.

You may have seen this campaign firsthand; ads stating “Imagine being allergic to people” were distributed widely, celebrities gave interviews to the press and psychiatrists gave lectures on this new disease in the top 25 media markets.

As a result, mentions of social anxiety in the press rose from about 50 to over 1 billion in just two years … social anxiety disorder became the “third most common mental illness” in the U.S. … and Paxil skyrocketed to the top of the charts as one of the most profitable and most prescribed drugs in the United States.

There was not a rapid rise in the number of people suffering from extreme shyness during this time … there was just a masterful marketing campaign that successfully whispered into enough people’s ears, “If you’re shy or nervous around others, you need to take this drug.” And that’s just what millions did.

It is hard to brand a disease without the help of physicians, of course. So drug companies typically recruit academic “thought leaders” to write and speak about any new conditions they are trying to introduce. It also helps if the physicians believe the branded condition is dangerous.

When AstraZeneca introduced Prilosec (and later Nexium) for heartburn, for example, it famously repositioned heartburn as “gastroesophageal reflux disease,” or GERD. But it also commissioned research to demonstrate the devastating consequences of failing to treat it.

An unholy Alliance

There is what’s been described as an “unholy alliance” between pharmaceutical manufacturers and doctors who are informing the population that they are, in fact, ill. Medical doctors are intelligent, good people.

They go through an extended educational process to learn how to help. Nonetheless, due to the speed at which information is coming across a doctor’s desk and given how busy doctors are with their medical practices, they can’t possibly keep up.

As a result, for prescribing advice, they’re forced to rely on the very skewed opinions of drug reps and the biased research paid for by their companies. I’ve heard it said, so much new information on medical treatment comes out each year, and within four years, a medical doctor’s training is obsolete.

In a 2003 publication, the British Medical Journal said, “Twisted together like the snake and the staff, doctors and drug companies have become entangled in a web of interactions as controversial as they are ubiquitous Ten years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Annals of Internal Medicine and The Lancet — put out an all-points bulletin throwing up a red flag warning that clinical research had become little more than commercial activity.

Creating Fear

A key strategy of the alliances is to target the news media with stories designed to create fears about the condition or disease and draw attention to the latest treatment. This has led to problems on several key levels:

  • People with benign, normal symptoms taking dangerous drugs. As we are convinced that natural signs of aging and common conditions are diseases or treatable symptoms, we take drugs for such things as balding, anxiety, mild bone loss, and indigestion, which put us at risk for issues that were not true illnesses or risks.
  • People being tested regularly and undergoing unnecessary treatments with drugs and invasive surgery. Very few people after middle age can pass tests without being told that they have some sort of “risk.” This risk is turned into a pseudo-disease leading to such things as dangerous breast and colon surgery and “preventative” medications.
  • Fear and a loss of clarity in the important practice of medicine. As a result of “disease branding,” the more the medical industry influences a nation, the sicker that nation “considers itself to be.” It eats away at our self-confidence and teaches us that we’re weak and incapable of staying well and that all signs and symptoms are potentially dangerous conditions and diseases. Truly, this sort of marketing has blurred the lines of what drugs and surgery we need or don’t.

I used to believe in what was originally the true principle of medicine. Unfortunately, symptoms of all kinds have been labeled “disease” or “deadly” causing us to now fear every sniffle, cough, ache, or pain.

What’s worse, we now seek passive medical retribution for both our physical and mental well-being rather than actively participating in it. When symptoms arrive as a result of how poorly we’ve neglected our bodies and minds, rather than taking personal responsibility for our wellness and trusting in the God-given recuperative powers of our body, we seek those who are now only too willing to take on this role for us.

As a result of handing over the full authority of our lives to the industry of medicine, the pharmaceutical and medical establishments have become bloated, profitable, powerful, and completely out of control.


  1. Herbad on July 26, 2011 at 10:52 am said:

    Whew…..scary and makes sense.

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