“Side Effects:” A Very Scary Look at the Dark Side of DTC

It’s always scary when Hollywood shines its spotlight on your industry. You never know how you’re going to be portrayed. And, in the case of “Side Effects,” the new thriller from Steven Soderbergh, the view is less than flattering. In fact, it may be enough to send you reaching for your preferred prescription-only anti-anxiety medication. (Only kidding … sort of.) Neither the story nor the marketing, which focuses on DTC advertising (see the sidebar “DDR on DTC: Ablixa”) could be described as flattering. Although “Side Effects” is primarily an indictment of physiological medical practices, pharmaceutical marketing also takes it on the chin.

The film follows Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a sophisticated New York psychiatrist as he finds himself caught up in the “pharmaceutical industrial complex.” As the story begins, he starts treating Emily, a young woman who appears to be suffering from an intense depressive episode that’s been triggered by her husband’s release from prison. It doesn’t take long for him to turn his attention to drugs. (“How about Zoloft?” … “Have you ever tried Lexapro?” … “Paxil?”) Emily encourages him by listing drugs that her friends have mentioned or that she may have seen advertised, and asking for a script.

It’s fascinating how actual brand name drugs are tossed about in these scenes. Everyone Emily encounters seems to be offering a solution (“It worked for me!”). And although Dr. Banks complies with all her requests, she appears increasingly depressed, detached and confused.

In the midst of this treatment chaos, Dr. Banks discovers Ablixa, a promising new SSRNI that suddenly seems to be everywhere — on nametags, pens, prescription ads and TV. The good doctor even agrees to conduct a clinical trial (he needs the money), and we soon see him signing on patients who are eager for “free drugs” (ouch). Emily quickly joins the club.

As the story unfolds, Ablixa’s marketing tactics are used to serve the purposes of the plot. The fact that Ablixa is not a real drug is disguised by how Soderbergh weaves it in and out of actual drug names and common pharmaceutical marketing practices. (Cymbalta and Abilify — your advertising has been punk’d.) Although the movie’s premise may be less than plausible, its under-the-spotlight look at modern medical, marketing and media will stir an uncomfortable pang of recognition among those of us who labor behind the scenes. Of course, it’s a thriller. Just maybe not the way Soderbergh intended.

Deborah Dick-Rath is the founder and CEO of the healthcare communications consultancy Epic Proportions. She writes MM&M’s monthly column “DDR on DTC.” She can be reached at [email protected].


Ever wonder what a DTC commercial might look like if it had been directed by an A-list Hollywood director, like, say Steven Soderbergh? The advertising campaign for “Side Effects” gives us an opportunity to find out. MM&M asked our regular DTC columnist Deborah Dick-Rath for a review.

DDR on DTC: Ablixa

Sad to say, the campaign for Hoffman Benelux’s new SSRNI Ablixa does not break any new ground. In fact, it almost looks like “DTC’s Greatest Hits.” Take, for instance, the TV ad’s imagery of a single gray cloud trailing a sufferer. This idea has been used before, with a “real” cloud to depict sadness for the brand’s key competitors (although the Ablixa team leverages a highly stylized version that breaks apart and dissipates as the sufferer’s condition improves). And, as color washes over the scene once our heroine is feeling better, we realize we’ve seen the b&w-to-color approach one too many times, in this category and others, from pain relief to toenail fungus.

The commercial’s primary call-to-action is “Ask your Doctor,” but there is also a strong drive to the website www.tryablixa.com and a corresponding integrated CRM registration/campaign. The website does feature a brief quiz to help viewers self-diagnose. While this is not an unusual tactic, this one is unique in that it features a doctor with a soothing and authoritative British accent (although we are not sure how this serves the brand character).

The brand’s tagline, “Take Back Tomorrow,” is ineffective as it implies a defiant stance. In addition, while this may be seen as a “hopeful” positioning, it does not tie directly to Ablixa’s benefits and could be a stand-in for any drug. The overall effect of the Ablixa campaign is a muddle because the brand itself fades into the “been there, done that” DTC advertising fog.