Jewish World ReviewOct. 24, 2002 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | TV talk shows are as pure as the driven snow job. We know that. When stars deign to shmooze with Matt, Katie, Jay or Dave, chances are 193% that they've come to plug a movie, book or I'm-so-compassionate cause. We accept that.
What we cannot accept is the latest, sneakiest marketing ploy: celebrities "spontaneously" chatting about a prescription drug - thanks to a hefty fee from the drug company.
This has happened several times during the past year. Last winter, for instance, Kathleen Turner went on "Good Morning America" to talk about her arthritis. Then she just happened to mention a Web site where viewers could find out about "extraordinarily effective" new medications. This Web site is sponsored by drug companies Amgen and Wyeth.
And so, it turns out, is Turner. Too bad she never mentioned this before or during the interview.
Just as creepily, Olympic skater Peggy Fleming went on ABC to discuss her cholesterol problem (how fascinating!). Cameras on, she praised Lipitor, a drug made by Pfizer. What she neglected to praise was her Pfizer paycheck.
Most depressingly of all, even Lauren Bacall sank to this so-called stealth endorsing. In March, she made a rare appearance on the "Today" show to talk about a friend who suffered from the blinding disease macular degeneration. Then she name-dropped the eye drug Visudyne.
"It was the weirdest thing," says Erika Schwartz, a health writer who happened to be watching at the time. "She hadn't written a book, hadn't done any research, she just said, 'I had a friend of a friend, and I wanted to come out here and talk about this [drug].' To me, it was blatantly obvious."
In part, it was Bacall's blatancy that made the rest of the media sit up, too. As more and more instances of drug plugging came to light, several networks vowed to ban pill pushers from their shows.
But it won't work, says Barry Greenberg, president of Celebrity Connection, a Los Angeles firm that matches celebs with companies. "It's like campaign finance reform," he says. "You can figure out 27 ways to stop it, and someone will figure out the 28th way to [book a spokesman], and the Hollywood drug cartel moves on."
This is not only depressing, it's dangerous, says Christina Schlank, author of "Medicine and Money." "The Food and Drug Administration regulates prescription drug advertising on TV. But when a celebrity goes on and says, 'This drug helped me,' they don't have to say, 'and the side effects are blah, blah, blah.'" That's big stuff to skip.
Still, I have hope. While no one can doubt the drug companies' resourcefulness, there is one force in Hollywood that's even greater than greed: vanity. And pill shilling looks pathetic. "Now, when somebody does this, it's going to be the equivalent of getting caught in a Thighmaster commercial," predicts Syracuse University pop culture guru Robert Thompson.
Hollywood has always had a problem with drugs. But as Turner, Fleming and Bacall have, one hopes, learned: Next time, just say no.
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