Killing me softly: myth in pharmaceutical advertising

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1484 (Published 16 December 2004)
Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1484

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  1. Tim Scott, senior lecturer (jts1@st-andrews.ac.uk)1,
  2. Neil Stanford, research assistant2,
  3. David R Thompson, director3
  1. 1 School of Management, University of St Andrews, Fife KY16 9AJ
  2. 2 Department of Health Sciences, University of York, York
  3. 3 School of Nursing, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
  1. Correspondence to: T Scott

    In studies of how drug advertising influences doctors' behaviour, little attention is given to visual and linguistic imagery. The authors argue that myth is often deployed in drug adverts to depict exaggerated therapeutic efficacy and that doctors should be aware of this

    Although the influence of research on medical practice has become a key concern, the influence of pharmaceutical advertising in medical journals has received little attention. There is evidence that advertising influences doctors' behaviour more than they might think.13 Important pockets of research exist in this area but tend to focus on the scientific validity of the text46 and rarely give much attention to visual and linguistic imagery.7 8 If advertising influences beliefs and behaviour and images are used in advertising, then images must contribute to influencing beliefs and behaviour.9

    One of a range of methods to promote pharmaceutical products,3 10 11 advertising in medical journals offers a privileged channel of communication from drug companies to doctors.8 Concerns have been expressed about the extent of its influence on prescribing. The industry has been accused of medicalising normal phenomena and promoting drugs as solutions to social problems.12 We examine how drug advertisers use images to construct mythical and potentially misleading associations between diseases and products.

    Theoretical approach: semiology and mythology

    Interpreting images is a domain of semiology (or semiotics), the general science of signs. Some semiologists argue that we do not primarily consume things but the meanings attached to them.13 For example, the Coca Cola brand is less about a carbonated drink than a promise of social identity. A sign is a relation between two terms: a signifier (word, sound, or image) and a signified (a concept).14 Any object can become a sign. For example, a black pebble may be used to …

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