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Ask Your Doctor if This Film is Right for You: Using Movies to Market Pharmaceutical Drugs

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A constant theme of “Now See Hear!” is the amazing variety of moving images and sound recordings in the Library’s collections. I confess that I am especially fond of educational, industrial, and promotional films like Facts About Film or Blame It on Love, and so will regularly write about those. The Ordeal of Thomas Moon is particularly interesting in that it’s a good example of how pharmaceutical drugs used to be marketed in the days before they were allowed to be advertised on television.

You don’t have to spend a lot of time watching TV to notice the tsunami of commercials for pharmaceuticals. It can be overwhelming at times and sometimes when I’m viewing a sporting event (about the only live programming I watch these days), I’ll keep a running count of ads for those three apparent necessities for today’s American male: beer, cars, and erectile dysfunction medication. Let’s just say that the number is usually “a lot.”

I’m old enough to remember when cigarettes were advertised on TV, but I certainly don’t recall there being so many ads for drugs other than aspirin. And there’s a reason: it’s only been since the mid-1980s that the Food and Drug Administration allowed “direct-to-consumer” (DTC) pharmaceutical advertising, a practice that really took off in 1997 when the FDA loosened requirements for listing side effects to what they called an “adequate provision” standard. The result has been many billions of dollars in television spending by pharmaceutical manufacturers for an astonishing variety of drugs. Of course, firms spend all this money so that viewers will ask for the medication by name the next time they visit their doctor (“ask your doctor if Insert Drug Name Here is right for you”), and it must be effective spending because the commercials show no sign of abating.

Business Screen, Volume 18, Number 4 (1957)

Direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising represents a significant change in the doctor-patient dynamic, one with pros and cons I am not qualified to adjudicate. But I can talk a little bit about how drug firms used to promote their products, and how a film in our collection was part of that effort. Before DTC advertising, drugs were marketed directly to physicians, typically through print mailings, sale representative visits, and free samples. Motion pictures were sometimes a part of the advertising mix, and were shown at professional gatherings like those sponsored by the American Medical Association. Such was the case with The Ordeal of Thomas Moon, a 1957 film produced for Smith, Kline & French, now known as GlaxoSmithKline. We have a 16mm print in the American Archive of the Factual Film Collection.

The title character is played by a totally unknown and uncredited 24 year-old actor named Dominick DeLuise, who would go on to much greater fame as rotund comedian Dom DeLuise. The Ordeal of Thomas Moon is the story of how an overweight man’s daily physical struggles finally force him to see his physician. Shot on location in New York’s Penn Station and surrounding streets, the film is notable for its sophisticated use of ambient sound, making it more interesting viewing than as a mere sales pitch.

What’s also curious about the film is how the name of the drug Smith, Kline & French is promoting is never mentioned. We know, however, from subsequent accounts that it was Dexedrine, an amphetamine originally developed in the 1930s to treat depression and narcolepsy, but whose appetite-suppressing side effects also made it very popular as a diet drug (it’s still prescribed today, primarily to treat hyperactivity). After being screened for an audience of physicians, a Smith, Kline & French sales representative would provide attendees with information about the drug. There was much discussion in the contemporaneous trade press about the merits of soft selling products in promotional films, but given that a movie like The Ordeal of Thomas Moon was never intended to be seen by a general audience and was always part of a live presentation, one can understand the approach.

The Ordeal of Thomas Moon (Gerald Productions, 1957)

If you want to download this video, right-click here and Save As.

Update: Last year around the time of the Super Bowl, the “In Custodia Legis” blog had a fabulous post about the history of direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceutical drugs. It’s well worth reading.


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