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A Spoonful of Sugar 

Using sex -- and celebrity -- to sell an antidepressant

Wednesday, Jun 24 1998
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A young, professional crowd -- some in couples, some alone -- filled the Herbst Theater. They had accepted the invitation offered in the advertising for the night's sold-out event, which read, in part: "Join Party of Five's Matthew Fox and Paula Devicq, MTV's Dr. Drew Pinsky and Dr. John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus for a 'Town Hall Meeting' and public discussion."

The event, called "Intimacy and Depression: The Silent Epidemic," was sponsored by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) and the National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMDA). The ad went on to explain that all proceeds would go to the NDMDA; it also mentioned that the Town Hall Meeting was supported by an educational grant from Glaxo Wellcome Inc. What was left unsaid in the ad -- and, for that matter, during the Town Hall Meeting itself -- was the fact that one of Glaxo Wellcome's best-selling products is the antidepressant Wellbutrin.

As public health organizations increasingly seek funding from private corporations, such symbiotic relationships are more and more common. The Town Hall Meeting spent time looking at the libido-dulling effects of antidepressants like Prozac that work by regulating brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. So even a generous observer might have found it a little odd that the event's sponsor, Glaxo Wellcome, manufactures Wellbutrin -- a drug that owes much of its popularity to the fact that, because it acts upon a different neurotransmitter, it tends not to depress patients' sex drives.

Despite the fact that print ads relied on photos of Fox and Devicq to enhance the pitch, the evening wasn't all TV stars. The full list of speakers included Martha Manning, Ph.D., "author of Undercurrents, who has personal experience with depression"; Brian Depenbrock, a licensed social worker and Manning's partner; Anita Clayton, M.D., from the University of Virginia's department of psychiatric medicine; and Anna Beth Benningfield, Ph.D., president-elect of the AAMFT. The executive director of the AAMFT, Michael Bowne, opened the evening's discussion; the executive director of the NDMDA, Lydia Lewis, closed it.

But since none of these experts star on a network TV program, Party of Five's Fox and Devicq showed two clips and spoke first. Devicq related an anecdote about being approached on the street by people worried about her character Kirsten: "Sometimes, as an actor, the line between reality and fiction becomes unclear."

In a more authority-minded age, the commercial tag line that defied logic yet somehow made sense was: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." As we've moved toward identity politics, the phrase has apparently become: "I'm not a victim, but I play one on TV."

After another Party of Five clip, Dr. Clayton came onstage to discuss the negative effect antidepressants often have on sexual function. She also gave a glimpse of hope, mentioning unnamed "newer agents" that fight depression without crippling libido -- which, after all, was the event's focus.

Following one final clip from Party of Five, the last speaker was best-selling author John Gray, whose remarks were characterized by the constant repetition of the title of his book, or at least themes from it ("It's hard to tell being depressed from being from Mars").

Introducing the audience Q&A session, Loveline's Pinsky reminded everyone, "The AAMFT and NDMDA do not endorse any specific medications."

Immediately, an audience member's disembodied voice asked Clayton a question about sexual dysfunction and medication. She repeated that yes, some new medications -- not the serotonin re-uptake inhibitors of the past, but newer compounds -- tend to have a lesser effect on sexual function.

Another member of the audience shouted for clarification: "Like what?"
Clayton answered: "Wellbutrin."

There's no question that sex sells. The fear of losing sex also sells -- everything from deodorant to mouthwash to self-help books. But should you use that fear to sell a product to people who are scared? Who are afraid of losing the people they love, afraid they're losing everything?

Glaxo Wellcome Product Communications Manager Holly Russell takes a bright view. The Town Hall Meeting, she explains, was part of the company's "disease-awareness" campaign. "Glaxo Wellcome as a company is interested in raising awareness so consumers can be best educated about diseases that affect them." Her language is telling: consumers; not patients, not people.

Russell also says Glaxo Wellcome got "excellent feedback" from questionnaires the company distributed. "We worked with AAMFT and National DMDA to create a program that we thought would carry the messages that the company wanted to communicate and provide important content for consumers," she says. "Part of the purpose of working with nonprofit associations is in a way, you're testing your messages, because they're going to want the content to be very educational and not product-driven, so to speak."

But even if Glaxo Wellcome has the best of all possible motives in funding this "Town Hall Meeting" and printing the brochure, and so on, doesn't it still have an obligation of full disclosure? While Pinsky was quick to mention that both the AAMFT and the NDMDA don't endorse specific medicines, what he didn't say was that specific medicines endorse those organizations. For instance, the NDMDA Web site, www.ndmda.org, announces on its home page that "This web site is made possible through an unrestricted educational grant from Glaxo Wellcome."

After the end of the Q&A, the speakers rose to leave, a Party of Five fan cried, "Thank God for VCRs!" receiving a hearty thumbs-up from Devicq, the lights came on, and the lines between reality and fiction, public good and good publicity were just a little more blurred.

Then again, Glaxo Wellcome is probably extremely familiar with the principle that a little sugarcoating makes things easier to swallow.

About The Author

James Rocchi

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