TV Eye

Pill-Popping Product Placement

A few weeks ago, a reader wrote asking for my help. Since I had expressed offense at a No Nonsense commercial -- even going so far as to include it in a list of top 10 things I hope never to see on television again -- the reader thought I would want to join her cause in protesting the latest commercial for KLBJ-FM radio. You know the one: The camera pans past several presumably nude women, each of whom has the logo of a rock band painted on her bare back. The voiceover explains why rock is tops at KLBJ (or something like that). The last woman in the row looks over her shoulder and offers a sultry wink to the camera. End of commercial.

While I'm not fond of the commercial, I'm not tied up in knots over it either. Should I be? I began to think about it (as I told the reader I would), and now I've come up with a response.

I've always had a problem with advertisements that use women's bodies as billboards, that is, which feature the female body but omit or obscure the figure's face. It's not that the female form embarrasses me, but not including the face of a woman, particularly when her body is being used to sell something, is the ultimate objectification of the female body. It disturbs me because the subliminal message is that the person, the woman, doesn't matter, that the female body is nothing more than something to adorn products like cars or motorcycles (i.e., "male" products), or something to be adorned (with jewelry, furs, cosmetics, etc.).

The ad is sexually gratuitous in the way a lot of popular music is. Is it offensive? Yes, in that adolescent-Hugh Hefner-XFL cheerleader way that makes me embarrassed for Hef, adolescents, and anyone else who finds that XFL cheerleader kind of preening and chest-thrusting sexy. And just what is it the last woman in the KLBJ ad is implying with that sultry wink? If you listen to KLBJ, she'll come to your house to tune your dial? That half-nude women listen to the station, and if you do too, you'll get to meet one of them? Or is it just what it is: a pretty woman provocatively winking her eye? Is it worth carrying lighted torches to the station in protest? Not today. There are bigger dragons to slay.

How about all those pharmaceutical ads that prey on hypochondria, under the guise of caring, "we understand" hand-patting? Need to lose weight or lower your cholesterol? Try Xenical, Lipitor, Pravachol, or Zocor. Suffer from osteoporosis? Ask your doctor about Evista. For arthritis, there's Vioxx or Celebrex. Can't get a good night's sleep? Go for Ambien. Allergy symptoms? Check out Claritin. And without my saying what they do, I suspect you can describe what the following drugs are for if they happen to address an ailment you suffer from: Vaniqa, Meridia, Paxil, Prilosec, Imatrex, Relenza, Zovirax, Valtrex, Rhinocort, and, of course, Viagra.

You've seen more of these ads since 1997, when the FDA relaxed regulations about how and the circumstances under which the pharmaceutical industry can sell its goods, according to an article on the subject by Lisa Belkin in the March/April issue of Mother Jones magazine. This is why you get the warm and fuzzy pitch, followed by a mandatory litany of the advertised drug's most severe side effects -- internal bleeding, fainting, blood clotting, and "a thick discharge" being a few of the most memorable.

The most perturbing of these ads are those aimed at women. Serafem is the most visible. If you're not feeling like the woman you are the rest of the month, perhaps you suffer from, not PMS, but PMDD, Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. PMDD means you're not happy before your period (i.e., dysphoric), and what's worse, according to the ads, you make everyone around you miserable. The cure? Serafem. The active ingredient? Fluoxetine hydrochloride, otherwise known as Prozac. So, the cause of your unhappiness is not physical, but emotional. Get over it. If you can't get over it, get Serafem.

Now, you'd think that after years of working to convince the medical community that PMS is not a fictional ailment, a commercial wouldn't resort to the old image of the hormone-crazed woman who can't control her emotions. But that's exactly what this one does. The Serafem ad focuses on the emotional instead of the physical causes of PMS and so conjures those creaky stereotypes of the crazed woman who must be contained. Break out the pills, medicate, or sedate the woman. Come on, be happy.

The most curious of the women-oriented pills pushed on the tube turns out to be not a prescription drug but an herbal remedy for the effects of menopause. In the commercial for this product, called Remifemin, women utter the catch phrase, "I'm a Remifeminist!" How curious that the term "feminist," a word with a social, political, and highly contested history -- and now a term of ill repute among a large segment of women -- has been gleefully appropriated at the service of a product. Whether this catchphrase will sell the product is yet to be seen.

One justification for these commercials is that they provide a public service, making consumers better informed about products so they can talk intelligently to their health care providers. I'm all for patient rights and not placing physicians in exalted positions of authority, but the key word in that line of defense is "consumers." Make no mistake: These are commercials, communicating products to sell, merchant to consumer, not medical expert to patient.

Yes, blatant exploitation does disturb me. But silhouettes of buxom women on mud flaps or images of scantily clad XFL cheerleaders are ridiculous and easily dismissed (or enjoyed, depending on your point of view). It's the messages couched in the language of scientific evidence or "we can help" voiceovers that make my radar go wild. When these "feel better" ads reinforce old stereotypes, my eyes roll to the back of my head. So, back to the KLBJ commercial. Does it discourage me from tuning in to KLBJ? No. But it doesn't encourage me either. Somehow, I don't think they'll be too concerned.


E-mail Belinda Acosta @ tveye@austinchronicle.com

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

KLBJ-FM, Lisa Belkin, Mother Jones Magazine, No Nonsense

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