Intended for healthcare professionals


O Liberty! what crimes are committed in thy name!

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 02 September 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:578
  1. Liam Farrell, general practitioner
  1. Crossmaglen, County Armagh

    Would bare breasts make you look twice at a drug company's advertisement? If the answer is yes, then the makers of Taxotere (docetaxel), used in the treatment of advanced breast cancer, will probably be very pleased with their advertising agency team.

    We doctors are shamelessly manipulated by drug companies in all kinds of ways. Although the methods cover the whole spectrum from subliminal to brazen, from little pens that don't work to pushy reps, the new advert for Taxotere does manage to be both innovative and striking. It is innovative because I've never seen such a display of feminine pulchritude in a medical journal before and striking for the very same reason. Even the adverts for oral contraceptives are usually quite coy, as if they were promoting aerobics rather safe sex.

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    Detail from Liberty Leading the People (1830) by Eugène Delacroix

    This advert was not in the Sun, or the Star, or Playboy (though there are many fascinating articles in Playboy, on Grand Prix racing, for example, or maybe gardening or fellatio). It has been placed in many leading medical journals, including the BMJ. As it is advertising a treatment for breast cancer obviously it can't be reckoned as pornography. Obviously.

    Nudity for art's sake is not pornographic; the painting used in the advert is not an original but a reproduction of Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, which is currently in the Musée du Louvre. So that's all right then, it's not pornography. Obviously.

    I wonder how Delacroix would feel about it if he was with us today. On the one hand, he might be disturbed at his work being hijacked for squalid commercial gain. On the other, he might be delighted to accept the patronage, which is presumably also the motivation for the many medical journals accepting the advert—everything has a price.

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    Bare breasts: if suitable for Liberty, why not for breast cancer?

    The association between doctors and drug companies may have brought many benefits, but the price we pay is our independence. The drug companies finance our medical press, support our postgraduate education, shower us with useless little freebies, and stroke us and make us feel important. Their raison d'être is to make a profit, and, as the free lunch palpably does not exist, why shouldn't they also call the tune and act as arbiters of good taste?

    The overall ambience of the advert is of revolutionary France, and all the political and social ferment that this implies. Against a background of barricades and muskets and gunpowder smoke and men in pantaloons there are a few jaunty urchins running around with flags; it feels like Les Miserables, with maybe a soupçon of Molière as well. It implies progress, action, a sweeping away of the old order, a new era of vigorous and virile therapy.

    But this background is all just window dressing, nothing but an artful veneer of pseudo-cultural sophistication, for there is no mistaking the main attraction—a woman, the eponymous Liberty, curiously not unlike Xena the warrior princess, with big bare breasts bang on centre stage. I almost expected a caption below something like: “Linda is 19, is interested in football, and wants to work for world peace.”

    The fact that the drug promoted is for the treatment of breast cancer does not really excuse the indiscretion. Are we being urged to talk more openly about breasts? Is it time breasts came out of the closet? Should adverts for Viagra show a huge phallus? Other famous advertising campaigns have employed the same aggressive and penetrative strategy: Barnardo's and the baby preparing to inject heroin in a dirty backstreet, Benetton and the cachectic patient with AIDS. To shock is to be noticed, and sensitivity is a secondary consideration; to be showered with outrage is more desirable than to be flogged with indifference.

    The breasts are put there to make an impact. It is a clinical and calculated action, and by writing about it I'm reacting just as the advertisers want me to: the strings are yanked, and the puppets dance and jerk; the bell rings, and both Pavlov's dog and I drool and slobber. I'm not so much turned on or even offended as I am surprised; I can handle breasts, I like having them around me, I feel comfortable in their presence, I enjoy hanging out with them, but they do seem less appropriate in some situations than in others.


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