Woke up this morning feeling chipper as Flipper, till I noticed a little quiz in an ad in Oprah magazine.
"Has there ever been a time when you were so irritable that you shouted at people?" "When you had much more energy than usual?" "When you were much more interested in sex than usual?"
Uh...so what if there was?
"It could be bipolar disorder," announced the ad.
I might be bipolar? Just because I shouted at a taxi yesterday and woke up thinking frisky thoughts about Vince Vaughn?
Well, the ad didn't go quite that far. But it did show snapshots of a woman yelling into the phone (done that), buying things she didn't need (like my new automatic nut cracker?) and feeling "irritable" (I don't even like nuts!), until the whole thing added up to pretty much my average bad day — and probably yours, too. Nonetheless, anyone recognizing herself in any of these scenarios was urged to bring this ad to her doctor in order to, "discuss your symptoms."
So now it's a symptom of mental illness if you've ever felt angry, peppy or horny? That means every single one of us is sick — the drug companies' fondest dream.
Drug sales, of course, are the impetus behind these ads. The drug industry always needs more customers, but customers don't materialize until they're sick. That means the industry has to convince them that they are. One way to do this is to take the ordinary vicissitudes of life — a restless leg, a bout of insomnia, a high patch or a low one — and turn them into illnesses. Skeptics have even coined a word for this practice: "disease mongering."
And rest assured, for any disease the drug companies bother to monger, there is always a name brand pill.
Now, I'm actually quite grateful that big pharma has come up with the drugs that soothe so many souls. I even believe that the $4 billion it spends on advertising does some good, by talking about taboo topics like depression and encouraging sufferers to seek help.
But enough is enough.
In the nine years since the drug industry has been allowed to advertise directly to consumers, its message has become part of the fabric of American life, selling us on a dream of perfection. It is to the psyche what the beauty biz is to the body: a shameless promoter of self-doubt. If you're not as pretty as Penelope Cruz, the ads tell us, you'd better buy some makeup now. And if you find yourself yelling, it's time to buy bipolar pills now.
But we are humans. And humans — even Penelope (even Vince!) — will never be perfect, nor were they meant to be.
There's only one word for the ads that try to make us feel abnormal about being normal: