We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

The Sinister Side of Advertising: How Drug Companies Target Audiences With Alarming Precision

Drug companies may be leveraging psychology to manipulate consumers into purchasing their products.
Famous baseball star Norman McMillian partook in an advertising campaign for Chesterfield Cigarettes. (Image Credit: Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Print ads capture a viewer’s gaze for an average of 2 to 4 seconds. To the average consumer, this 2 to 4 second glance is insignificant, with ads being just another aspect of everyday life to which we’re desensitized. However, to companies and businesses, the importance of these 2-4 seconds is immeasurable, which perhaps is why the U.S. advertising industry is one of the largest in the world. It is within these mere 2 to 4 seconds that an advertisement must seize the viewer’s attention, secure an interest in the product, and ultimately an intent to buy it. 

Accomplishing this task is incredibly difficult, especially given that the vast majority of the time, advertisements are featured in places where people are on the go. The number of times you’ve witnessed an advertisement plastered on the side of a train car is likely in the thousands, while the number of times you’ve actually purchased the product is likely close to zero. In the face of an essentially unfeasible task, companies have gotten innovative with advertising techniques, having developed a series of meticulous psychological tactics to tap into the deepest desires and vulnerabilities of their consumers. 

The already demanding challenge of effective advertising becomes increasingly complex when the product being advertised is infamously regarded as a leading cause of various health issues. This presents drug and alcohol companies with a seemingly impossible task – to make inherently dangerous substances sound appealing to the public. To counter the preexisting negative connotation of drug usage, the visual and linguistic features of drug advertisements must be flawless, and delicately curated to resonate with the interests, fears, and demographics of their audience.

In the early 1900s, drug companies began placing an emphasis on marketing, launching minor advertising campaigns generally in the form of flyers. The calculated planning that went into a singular flyer cannot be overstated, with each detail, phrase, and image being incorporated to serve a highly particular purpose. 

Slogans were an exceptionally popular and potent advertising tool employed by marketers to harness consumer interest, and it is safe to affirm that a catchy slogan went a long way. In 1946, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company set in motion an ad campaign for the product, Camel Cigarettes. It hinged on the slogan “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” This phrase was of course accompanied by visual aids that depicted physicians holding the cigarette, hearty smiles plastered across their faces. 

Highlighting doctors as opposed to another demographic was not a spontaneous decision, rather it was a diligent choice, one made to enhance the viewer’s perception of the Camel cigarette. Doctors are perceived as honorable figures from whom people seek health advice and life-saving care, juxtaposing the common notion that cigarettes are unhealthy. Of course, a product sounds enticing when it is being supposedly promoted by people who yield the inherent duty to protect the health and well-being of our society. This slogan aims to reprogram the viewer’s mind, beckoning it to replace the association it naturally makes between cigarettes and health issues with one between cigarettes and doctors. It is always preferable for a company’s product to be aligned with doctors instead of lung cancer. 

However, what the public was not aware of was the fact that the individuals pictured in these advertisements were not certified physicians, but rather hired actors merely dressed in lab coats. Indeed, the grim reality is that the company did not utilize real medical professionals because advertising such a harmful product could easily lead them to lose their medical license. Nevertheless, from the perspective of the company, the truth wasn’t a priority as long as the public believed it and it was generating profit, both of which it seemed to achieve. 

It is not only medical figures that have been leveraged to endorse illicit substances. Drug companies are also no strangers to the genius advertising model of initiating campaigns attached to a specific celebrity. Fans tend to have an unusual sense of trust in celebrities, a sensation that is not often present between consumers and sellers. Thus, utilizing a celebrity as the face of a given advertisement is immensely advantageous, granting companies immediate access to a following that is not only massive but one with a demographic that can easily be surveyed and analyzed. 

Chester Cigarettes was infamous for composing various advertising initiatives oriented around famous athletes, notably, American Major League Baseball star Norman McMillan (1895-1969). The advertisement features the slogan, in strikingly bright lettering, “Then, he starred on the ball field, now, he stars in the tobacco field.” 

While the advertisement makes an overt psychological appeal to McMillan’s fanbase, it simultaneously makes subtle grabs at other demographics, as the campaign would be a waste of funding given it could only reach one target audience. The flyer is designed to concurrently foster the product’s credibility among the general public, by taking advantage of the accepted perception of athletes. 

Athletes are projected as the epitome of fitness, those who must treat physical health as a fundamental priority. Consumers are intended to view this ad and conclude that if a professional athlete can safely and healthily smoke a cigarette, then the average person can, too. Therefore, even for those who are not baseball fans, let alone aware of Norman McMillian’s existence at all, the ad exerts an undeniable psychological pull. 

Chester Cigarette’s advertising ambitions did not stop at recruiting athletes; they extended to political figures as well. Famously, throughout the 1940s, the company conducted an extensive campaign with future American politician Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), who would proceed to become the 40th president of the United States. This series of ads gave Chesterfield access to the positive qualities the public believed Reagan embodied – charisma, reliability, and an all-American image. The implicit message was clear: smoking Chesterfield cigarettes was not just a personal choice, but rather a lifestyle aligned with the values and persona of someone as “esteemed” as Ronald Reagan.

Drug advertising initiatives have been advancing at concerningly rapid rates, and are no longer solely taking over billboards and flyers but entire online spaces. With our ever-evolving digital landscape, there is now an entirely new realm of marketing opportunities for drug companies to exploit: social media. Drug companies possess the frightening ability to instantaneously reach millions of people across the globe with a singular ad, opening the door for unprecedented levels of influence. 

Naturally, this poses a myriad of fundamental issues. Unlike traditional media, the internet is vast, decentralized, and constantly evolving, making it difficult to monitor and regulate effectively. Advertisements for drugs (particularly prescription drugs) are subject to strict regulations that require the disclosure of potential side effects and risks. Scarily, these rules are harder to enforce online, where ads can quickly appear and disappear within the blink of an eye, and content can be shared across multiple platforms beyond the reach of regulators.

Social media has also conveniently generated an entirely new genre of marketers: influencers. This has created yet another optimal advertising strategy for drug companies, one that is even more effective than the utilization of celebrities due to the uniquely personal connection influencers have with their fanbase. E-cigarette companies have been one of the first to exploit this, as made evident by the epidemic of e-cigarette sponsorships that has consumed the internet within the last few years. 

Drug advertisements are a testament to the looming dangers of emotional and psychological tricks. Beneath the surface, these seemingly harmless advertisements harness our deepest fears, insecurities, and desires, weaving false narratives that could potentially ruin a life. The next time you encounter a drug advertisement on a subway ride, spare it longer than a 2 to 4 second glance, and observe the multitude of manipulative tactics at play.

In the face of an essentially unfeasible task, companies have gotten innovative with advertising techniques, having developed a series of meticulous psychological tactics to tap into the deepest desires and vulnerabilities of their consumers. 

About the Contributor
Simone Ginsberg, Staff Reporter
Simone Ginsberg is a Spotlight Editor for ‘The Science Survey.' She enjoys composing editorial pieces and prioritizes strong rhetoric and statistics in her writing. However, she also appreciates hard news stories. In addition, Simone thoroughly enjoys writing about foreign affairs and world issues, covering unique angles on global politics. She appreciates journalism that includes a plethora of unique, loaded quotes, strongly believing that quotes are one of the most effective ways to cover a diverse range of perspectives while maintaining journalistic objectivity. Another aspect of journalism she greatly values is photography. Good photography should contribute vitally to the article as opposed to simply supporting it. Beyond journalism and academics, Simone enjoys traveling, shopping, and debating, all of which play a key role in inspiring her writing. Although much of her future remains undecided, she aspires to study economics or foreign affairs in college.