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Not So Humble Opinion: July 5, 2012

Confession: Scared To Watch Commercials

Readers of this column may know that I enjoy some good TV, and even some bad TV. However, what you probably don’t know is that I won’t watch anything unless it’s been recorded, so I can fast forward through the commercials. It’s not that I don’t have the patience to wait out the commercial break, or even mind watching most commercials: it’s that I’m absolutely terrified that a certain kind of commercial will rear its insidious, anxiety attack-provoking head.

We’ve all seen them, and they usually feature someone with a disarmingly pleasant, melodic voice saying something like this:

“If you have this relatively minor problem, Miracle Wonder Drug may be right for you. Miracle Wonder Drug may lead to serious side effects including blood clots, aneurysm, heart attack, stroke, death, reanimation as a zombie corpse and then some more death, and indigestion. If you are pregnant or may become pregnant at some point in your entire life, do not take Miracle Wonder Drug because your child may be affected— and we don’t mean in a cool way like in X-Men where your kid gets mutant powers, we mean it’s more like a “your baby is a giant monster who just ate Tokyo” kind of situation. In fact, the product is so toxic to children in general that random kids you pass on the street may spontaneously burst into flame, but only occasionally. Oh, and going to the bathroom while on Miracle Wonder Drug might become much more eventful, but not excruciatingly painful….usually.

“Ask your doctor about Miracle Wonder Drug, the only one-pill-a-day solution that also makes your skin look better!”

Now is it just me, or are these frightening? Not only do they constantly remind you of every bad health-related thing that could possibly happen to you, but they put the voiceover above video of incongruous things like smiling children playing. As far as I’m concerned, today’s thrillers are made by rank amateurs: this is true psychological horror.

Of course, in a strange way the fact that these commercials are horrifying is a positive for consumers. If manufacturers weren’t forced to disclose all the potential side effects of these products by law, all these commercials would feature nothing but adorable scenes of laughing toddlers playing with golden retriever puppies, while impossibly beautiful models extolled the virtues of the latest pill. So while I can appreciate the fact that fear of litigation is keeping pharmaceutical companies honest (up to a point), it makes the act of watching TV a harrowing experience, and I’m getting really tired of it.

Honestly, I wish these ads would just be made illegal, along with their magazine counterparts. However, I do realize there are a lot of issues with the whole “let’s ban everything I don’t like” approach to problem solving. In theory, the market should be regulating itself; people should be so turned off by these commercials that promise only minimal benefits in the place of huge risks that they should negatively affect sales, leading to their discontinuation. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why this didn’t already happen years ago.

Have people heard the list of horrible side effects so many times that it no longer even registers? Or is it all a case of “it won’t happen to me,” where people only pay attention to the benefits of the product in the misguided belief that the downsides will always be someone else’s problem?

I’ve spoken to doctors who complain about this phenomenon for a different reason: these commercials encourage people to self-diagnose and then bug their doctors to prescribe whatever the latest drug advertised on TV is. Add in the pressure doctors are already feeling from pharmaceutical companies to prescribe certain medications, and the whole thing makes for bad medicine. Doctors should be making medical decisions, not patients who have been subjected to a stream of shamelessly manipulative, relentless marketing.

I acknowledge that this is a medical problem, but you know what? That’s not the issue for me personally. For me, I just want to be able to watch TV without feeling like I need to be prepared to dive behind the couch at any moment because one of these commercials could set off a panic attack. Besides, I want to be able to actually watch the commercials if I feel like it.

Remember that charming series of ads from years ago where two people slowly fell in love over the intoxicating aroma and delicious flavor of Taster’s Choice coffee? If they start that up again, I don’t want to miss it because I’m hiding behind the couch.