Side Effects May Include: Narrative Ethics in Big Pharma Commercials

We’ve all seen them on TV, the prescription drug commercials that make you say to yourself, this is soooooo cheesy…


First, a miserable, suffering actor is shown on the screen. They suffer from depression, irritable bowel syndrome, maybe even Crohn’s disease, the list goes on. The actor is shaped by their illness, clearly alienated and not enjoying their time on the commercial like the supporting actors who live without the illness

Then BOOM, here comes the advertising.

A happy, go lucky, skipping-through-fields-of-flowers-esque metamorphosis comes over the actor as the voice over introduces you to the drug. The actor is transformed into a joyful result of Humira, Viagra, Lyrica etc. And then comes the speedy voice over listing the side effects which are often worse than the condition the medication is supposed to treat; but yet the actor is still smiling and walking peacefully on the beach, completely delusional to the fact that even though their ailment is treated, they have strokes, heart attacks, and hair loss to look forward to.

Image result for side effects of lyrica meme

Take this TV commercial for Humira as an example, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The woman is clearly distraught in the first segment pre-Humira, and post-Humira her world is transformed into euphoria.

Prescription drug commercials bring to mind two questions, 1) how does the narrative the commercial creates affect our perception of the product advertised and 2) is it ethical for the commercial to present these narratives as a marketing tool?

The world of advertising is no stranger to narratives. Companies cash in on our human nature to bond with stories that resonate with our own. Narrative ethics assumes that an individual’s life is guided by stories about the way the world is or how it should be, which protects and promotes the good of learning. In the world of pharmaceuticals, the narratives are created in commercials showing how the world should be for those who suffer from ailments that are treated by their product.  Stories are a way for us to communicate with each other and build relationships, and these narratives play on the human concept of togetherness that we all possess in our inner core. The narratives created in the pharmaceutical commercials draw in the consumer as they see themselves reflected in the actor’s experiences, and ultimately buy into the product.


However, the ethics of these commercials are questionable. There is a clear narrative in the first minute and a half of the commercial, but the side effects of these advertised drugs are left out of the story. The side effects are read at a  fast-forward pace, with the actor still in post-treatment bliss. There is no narrative for us to connect to for the side effects. The consumer can be so caught up in the possibility of living like the actors that they ignore the side effects that come with the medication. Big Pharma has always had questionable ethics, take the Big Pharma Game that pokes fun at the “business etiquette” of pharmaceuticals. By creating a story that sheds only positive light on prescription drugs while the side effects hide in the shadows of the commercial, Big Pharma plays both sides of narrative ethics. Television advertisement ethical standards will always be a topic of discussion surrounding prescription drug companies until the narrative in the commercials portrays the actor in post-treatment bliss with the side effects of the medication. But until then, we will be waiting.


-Kayla M