Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pharma Mascots - Cartoon Stand-Ins for Disease

Credit: Time Magazine

While glancing through some magazines yesterday, I came across a troubling ad for Abilify (aripiprazole). It’s not the drug that irks me, but rather the imagery - in the ad, depression takes the form of a sad, hovering blue bathrobe, stalking the nervous patient down the sidewalk.

I get it. Abilify helps a lot of people with severe depression feel normal enough to get outside and live. But the picture carries a menacing subtext: Without this med, depression will cover you and weigh you down, like a thick, fuzzy robe of gloom.

This is, of course, nothing new. Marketers make their livings playing on our subconscious reactions to colors, smells, and situations. But pharmaceutical marketing takes the message one step further. Many people recognize the signs and symptoms of disease: sore joints, skin discoloration, cough, fever, blurred vision. But do they know about the underlying condition, or anything about the drugs* used to treat it?

Well, cartoons to the rescue! Nowadays, each med gets its very own mascot, a stand-in for all the aches and pains brought on by the specific problem. For Uloric (febuxostat), a gout flare treatment, a man carries an Erlenmeyer flask full of green liquid meant to represent uric acid (which is actually a white solid). His obviously stunted gait and heaving effort evokes gout’s painful inflammation. Pristiq (desvenlafaxine), an antidepressant marketed by Wyeth before the Pfizer takeover, showed a sad, small wind-up doll, meant to show the effort needed to “get going” when depressed.

Lamisil (terbinafine) needed a mascot to represent a fairly common locker room ailment – foot fungus. The myco-avatar? Meet Digger, a small, spiky, yellow critter who represents discomfort and skin discoloration. His long claws are meant to simulate the scratching and burning brought on by infection.

Finally, Mucinex (guaifenisin) gives us Mr. Mucus, a hefty green glob used as a mucus analogy. He is, perhaps, the most over-the-top mascot, in that his only function seems to sit around as chronic congestion might.

Do these disease caricatures actually help someone, say, decide between two alternative treatments? Or appreciate the risks and side effects behind a certain treatment? Or are they just cute graphics to put on T-shirts and coffee mugs?

*In case you’re wondering, I didn’t forget: here’s the structure of the drugs

Update (12/24/11) - Added guaifenisin, generic name for Mucinex. The same generic drug is indeed found in several OTC medications.


  1. If anyone's wondering, Mucinex is guaifenesin, which I believe is found in many OTC cough medicines including Robitussin.

  2. @gippgig - Right you are. I'll add it to the text.