How Big Pharma used sexist advertising to hawk drugs to women
In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) boasted slick, Mad Men–style ads in which women clearly “knew their place” and stayed in it.
Ads about the pathos of aging wives and mothers losing their looks, children, femininity, and purpose in life were rampant in medical journals. One ad shows a woman at her child’s graduation ceremony with the headline “Magna cum depression,” referring to the empty-nest syndrome she will soon, presumably, experience.
In an ad for Valium we are told that the woman pictured (“Jan”) is “psychoneurotic” because she is unmarried at age 35. “You probably see many such Jans in your practice,” says the ad—“The unmarrieds with low self-esteem. Jan never found a man to measure up to her father.”
Some ads were almost sympathetic to “housewives,” who were supposed to find fulfillment taking care of others and their homes, with no career of their own. “Why is this woman tired?” asks the headline under a photo of a dissipated, bathrobe-clad young woman about to tackle a stack of dirty dishes. She may just need more sleep, says the ad, but she also may be one of “many of your patients—particularly housewives—[who] are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue. For these patients, you may find ‘Dexedrine’ an ideal prescription.”
But the message—that these women are not adjusting to the role that society has given them and that the answer is drugs—is clear. Nowhere is it suggested that they need a chance to use their brains—and need a dishwasher more than a prescription.
“I’m restless, nervous, tired all the time and always nagging,” says another “dirty dishes” ad, this one for the antidepressant Sinequan. A further ad in the Sinequan series shows a clothesline with similar I’m-exasperated copy. “A lot of little things are wrong,” it says. “Headaches, diarrhea, this rash on my arm. And sometimes I think I don’t like being married.” Another Jan who can’t find a husband to measure up to dear old Dad?
Another ad depicts a smiling wife and mother in a flowered housedress serving her executive-type husband and college-aged daughter in pearls a breakfast of cooked cereal, juice, milk, and percolated coffee (who remembers coffee percolators?) Everything seems fine but the ominous headline reads: “The pre-hysterectomy patient who wears a facade of unconcern.” When you turn the page, the husband and daughter have left—and so has the woman’s smile. It’s all an act.
Some drug ads in old medical journals are downright offensive and misogynistic. “A sleeping pill for night squawks” was the headline for an ad for the hypnotic sedative Doriden in a 1969 issue of JAMA. “She has insomnia . . . so he’s awake,” says the copy, empathizing with the man, not the woman. “Restless and irritable, she growls at her husband. How can this shrew be tamed?” Yes: The ad calls the woman a shrew.
An ad for the psychoactive drug Triavil adds ageism onto the sexism. Showing an older, wrinkly woman in a bouffant wig with hair bows, gigantic sunglasses and garish jewelry, the headline—“Lady, your anxiety is showing (over a coexisting depression)”—is disrespectfully written right across her nose.
“On the visible level, this middle-aged patient dresses to look too young, exhibits a tense, continuous smile and may have bitten nails or overplucked eyebrows,” says the ad copy. “What doesn’t show as clearly is the coexisting depression.”
When Women Outlive Their Ovaries
A bestselling book in 1966 called Feminine Forever by Robert A. Wilson, a Wyeth-funded gynecologist, firmly established women’s reproductive organs as the determinant of their moods, looks, destiny and value in society. The book referred to postmenopausal women as “flabby,” “shrunken,” “dull-minded,” and “desexed,” and warned that “no woman can be sure of escaping the horror of this living decay.”
The menopause scare tactics led to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for most women as they aged, though electric shock therapy was also considered useful. In 1946, an ad from Smith, Kline & French in Psychosomatic Medicine calls electric shock and hormones “fundamental measures.”
Like the shrew ad, women are also medicated to make life easier for those around them. “Sally Wilson has lost her reputation,” says one ad headline over a woman in reading glasses with a ream of papers, who appears to be an office worker. “In the last week or so, Sally Wilson’s year-old reputation as an unpredictable grouch has melted away.” Why? “Sally’s menopause had triggered symptoms that hormone therapy by itself apparently hadn’t helped,” but adjunctive Valium has “helped her relax.” Now Sally has “been coming in on time and turning out more work,” says the ad.
Ads for HRT drugs like Premarin were even more ruthless. “When Women Outlive Their Ovaries” is the headline for one, showing a grandmotherly woman in a frumpy cardigan sweater. “There we were—my husband at the peak of his career . . . but no time for me,” says the ad. “This wasn’t a ‘change,’ it was a catastrophe.”
Ads also did not hide doctors’ presumed contempt for patients. An ad for the sleeping pill Quaalude reads, “Now the physician has one less tired, sleepy and apprehensive patient to contend with.” Contend? Another recommends psychoactive drugs, “If She Calls You Morning . . . Noon . . . and Night Day After Day.”
Ads hawking hormone replacement therapy to spare women the living decay of old age and failed ovaries did not end until fairly recently. Wyeth (who made the most popular hormone drugs) ran high-budget TV ads in the early 2000s, with model Lauren Hutton telling the viewer that aging and loss of hormones was terrible—and voluntary. Menopause, said the Hutton ads, “contributes” to heart disease and other “age-related diseases,” but hormone replacement therapy would prevent diminished memory, loss of sight and even tooth-loss. According to these ads, women didn’t lose hormones because they aged; they aged because they lost hormones.
If hormone replacement therapy was mostly hype or barely worked, that would be one thing. But more then ten years ago, hormone replacement therapy was found to cause most of the age-related afflictions it was supposed to prevent.
A huge federal study in 2002 found that HRT increased the risk of breast cancer by 26 percent, heart attacks by 29 percent, stroke by 41 percent, and it doubled the risk of blood clots. In a related study published the next year, HRT doubled the risk of dementia in women, and in a separate study, the brains of older women who were given HRT actually shrunk. These statistics did not exactly support the preservation of memory, as the ads promised. The federal study, called the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), was terminated in 2002 because it was considered unethical to expose women to the obvious and known risks but subsequent studies exposed other HRT harm. Women taking hormones were more likely to lose their hearing, develop gall bladder disease, urinary incontinence, asthma and melanoma and need joint replacement, said medical journals. They are at greater risk for ovarian, endometrial and lung cancers and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Their risk of lobular breast cancer increases in just three years of HRT. Thanks, Lauren.
HRT not only increased the risk of breast cancer, it made detecting cancer more difficult. In 1995, an article in the journal Radiology said that “an increase in mammographic density” was demonstrated in most subjects undergoing continuous combined HRT.” By 2008, the abnormal mammograms associated with HRT were so well known, researchers warned “this adverse effect on breast cancer detection should be incorporated into risk-benefit discussions with women considering even short-term combined hormone therapy.”
Women whose lives are over when their kids leave home, and who do not find fulfillment washing dishes, hanging laundry and peeling potatoes, are certainly also at risk of being called bad mothers. Long before the Rolling Stones’ hit record, “Mother’s Little Helper,” (Doctor please/ Some more of these/ Outside the door/ She took four more) there was another pill for that.
A 1956 ad for Serpasil, a hypertensive drug once given as a mood-leveler, shows a mother screaming as her wild son, who is decked out like Davy Crockett, runs through the living room with a toy rifle. Seated on a couch in a pinafore apron, with a canister-style vacuum cleaner at her feet, the harried mother connotes the famous Edvard Munch painting “The Scream.”
“Raise the emotional threshold against everyday stresses,” says the ad’s headline. Serpasil “acts as a gentle mood-leveling agent [and] . . . sets up a needed ‘tranquility barrier’ for the many patients who, without some help, are incapable of dealing calmly with a daily pile-up of stressful situations.”
Of course an ad telling a woman to take drugs because her son is wild would not run today. Sadly, an ad telling her to put her son on drugs would.
Martha Rosenberg is an investigative reporter whose work has appeared in Consumers Digest, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Los Angeles Times, Providence Journal and Newsday. She serves as editorial cartoonist at the Evanston Roundtable. Her Random House food and drug exposé, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, was cited in the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2013 Outstanding Books awards. She has appeared on CSPAN, National Public Radio and other top news outlets. Her last piece for The Influence was “Ten Huge Drug Rip-Offs—And Big Pharma’s Infuriating Campaign to Keep on Price-Gouging.” You can follow her on Twitter: @MarthRosenberg.
This article is adapted from the award-winning Penguin/Random House health exposé, Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health.