Health for Sale – What Would DDMAC Do?

Last week I was fortunate enough to catch a segment of the PBS News Hour that featured a new exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum called “Health for Sale“.  The exhibit is comprised of the direct-to-consumer (DTC) of yesteryear – posters designed to sell medical products to the public for various ailments.

The first and striking thing about the exhibit is that many the collection is comprised of some extremely interesting and at times compelling poster art.  The exhibit represents the collection efforts of William H. Helfand who in the mid-1950s began collecting prints with medical subjects.  The exhibit represents 50 posters out of the greater total of 200 in the collection.  Included are the work of prominent artists from many countries in Europe and the U.S.

The title of the exhibit “Health for Sale:  Posters from the William H. Hefland Collection” reminds us of another aspect besides art – the marketing of medical treatments. Many of us are accustomed to having seen antique posters advertising travel or liquor, but these are selling health.  And as one reviews the posters in the exhibit, one can see that many of them would send DDMAC’s head spinning.

The Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications – DDMAC – is charged with the regulation of today’s advertising and communications involving medical product manufacturers about their products.  Key standards enforced by DDMAC are for (i) the inclusion of risk information balanced with the indication of the product; (ii) sticking to the product’s indication and (iii) not making claims unsubstantiated by clear clinical evidence, among other things.

In the top poster – an American example, one can see that the Cherry Pectoral “cures” coughs and colds.  DDMAC wouldn’t even need its “Bad Ad” program for this one. Promising a cure for the common cold could easily get one into trouble – an unsubstantiated claim to be sure.  The Uricure poster from Italy – hmm, it could be a “reminder ad” except that the name implies the indication – it is a product that cures something to do with the urinary tract right?  Actually it lists underneath the maladies of rheumatism, arthritis and gout.  But surely by having the man dancing after taking the cure – does that imply a broadening of indication?  Nothing in the Uricure label presumably says anything about being able to dance after taking the product – or looking good in red for that matter.

Another of my favorites is another of the Italian posters that positions Cod Liver Oil as a treatment for tuberculosis and “chest ailments”.  Needless to say, none of the medical posters contains any risk information – not even a link to risk information.

But while some of the posters serve as a reminder of the role that DDMAC assumes in protecting public health through the regulation of communications about products, my absolute favorite poster in this exhibit is not advertising a medical product.

Rather, and I think more importantly, it is a reminder of why we need medical products to begin with – and the role that prevention and treatment both play in the protection of public health.  For while bad ads may be menacing, disease and illness are far greater threats.

The exhibit will be at the Philadelphia Art Museum from now until July 31, 2011.  If you are in Philly, I hope you will go to see it, and I know I shall make every effort to get there myself.  if you can’t get there, be sure to view it on line.

I want to thank the press office at the Philadelphia Art Museum for their assistance and kind permission to use the images in this posting.

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