Enough With Celebrities in Drug Ads on TV!

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


November 12, 2018

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University (NYU).

Where do your patients go when they need medical advice? Do they call or email you and ask questions about trying out different remedies or preventive agents? Do they go to the Internet and use reliable sites that are vetted, peer-reviewed, and trustworthy? There are many of those, and hopefully [patients are getting] some information from the Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Health, the US Food and Drug Administration, or perhaps Medscape or WebMD. These are carefully checked for accuracy.

Well, all too often they go to a celebrity. Celebrities play a large role in advertising products. For example, Goop has a kind of business that has evolved around using many different celebrity voices. In the case of morning sickness, the spokesperson who has been advertising heavily for Bonjesta® is Kim Kardashian. She may be a wonderful person—I don't know.; I've never met the woman and I don't know much about her, but I see pictures of her all the time. She is certainly not someone who went very far in her science and medical education. I would venture to guess that she probably stopped around her high school days and did not do much more than that. Nonetheless, the company uses her as their spokesperson. Here's a quote from her: "You know how sick I was when I was pregnant. I could barely get out of bed. That's when I found a safe and effective medicine to treat my morning sickness when diet and lifestyle didn't help. If you're pregnant and feeling sick and changing your diet and lifestyle, ask your doctor about Bonjesta."

How many times have we seen these ads fueled by celebrities where they're saying, "...and ask your doctor"? I have a couple of things to say about this kind of celebrity-driven, direct-to-consumer advertising. If your doctor needs to find out from you about what Kim Kardashian said you ought to be trying, you probably need a new doctor. It isn't the case that Kim is a reliable source of information. I doubt that there are very many doctors who don't know about morning sickness on their own through reading, studying, and education. When someone [in a commercial] says, "If you have any side effects from taking this..." and then goes into that long, morbid spiel about all of the things that could happen—"then you should talk to your doctor..." Well, hopefully you would be talking to your doctor if you had any of those side effects. And hopefully you would not be learning about them in a commercial.

Celebrity-driven direct-to-consumer advertising is one of the things I think keeps drug prices high. That gins up demand for things that are not necessarily the best for the patient; there are relatively few ads for lifestyle changes or for generic substitutes. And it gives a false sense of trust and security when you have someone that people admire give this kind of message, or when clever advertising arrangements are used that make people think they are getting all of the information they need.

I think the time has come for medicine to say, "Enough with the celebrity ads, enough with the direct-to-consumer advertising." We ought to go back, as almost every other country in the world has done, to leaving this to doctor-patient discussions. When I need a drug, I want a doctor who knows how to prescribe it, who knows what is the best drug for me, and who can tell me all about the side effects. I really don't want to learn about this at dinner from a celebrity.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU. Thanks for watching.


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