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Rebranding disease

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Thursday, Dec 11, 2008

At the Mind Hacks blog, Vaughan Bell links to a study whose name is self-explanatory: “The Role of Medical Language in Changing Public Perceptions of Illness.” Medical language, it seems, is deployed to make humdrum conditions more exploitable in the market. Conditions like baldness can be rebranded with medical jargon that has the effect of making the condition seem more acute, more unhealthful. We take diseases more seriously if they sound complicated and Latinish. Patent-medicine hawkers and nostrum makers have of course taken advantage of this for years—using obfuscation and crypto-erudition to cause alarm and insecurity—so it’s no surprise to see the efficacy of the tactics confirmed in research. And of course, one of the triumphs of modern advertising was the invention of “halitosis”—the semantic means of medicalizing bad breath.


Capitalism thrives by fostering new needs; luckily, new worries also qualify. In 1936, Printer’s Ink, an advertising trade journal, began to keep a list of diseases invented through marketing. It makes good business sense to hit people where they are most vulnerable and potentially most ignorant. Jargonizing health discourse has the neat effect of seeming to educate consumers while actually confusing them and making them more manipulable. (Perhaps all jargon serves this function.) It’s subtraction through addition.


Bell sums up the larger ramifications of the research well:


Pharmaceutical companies often promote the benefits of their product, but they also regularly attempt to change our understanding of the problem itself, so the use of their medication seems the most sensible option.
However, there are many other players in the public discussion of illness and certain ideas about causes, symptoms and treatments are often pushed by people because it fits in with other agendas they have.
This is particularly relevant for scientific theories and it is no accident that many of the most significant public medical debates in recent years have been over the acceptance of certain explanations - such as the role of the MMR vaccine in autism, the role of neurotransmitters in mental illness, the role of genetics in obesity.
There is no explanation of illness independent of culture and an understanding of how popular ideas influence our personal medical beliefs is an essential part of understanding medicine itself.


In an article from Stay Free, Carrie McLaren drew the requisite conclusions about the commercial persuasion industry’s effect on that “culture” and those “popular ideas.”


when it comes to advertising, the more symptoms–and the more noticeable, painful, and embarrasing the symptoms–the better, because the easier it is to sell to consumers; that is, the more likely the illness will be self-diagnosed. And drugs for self-diagnosed ills–allergies, weight-reduction rather than cholesterol or blood pressure–are those seeing the greatest boost from commercials. Eskimos may have 14 words for snow, but we’ve now got just as many for allergy symptoms. In the same way that the availability of a drug such as Prozac can define an illness, televisibility now figures in…. It is, in other words, eerily fitting for drugs to be sold as consumer products, for products–whether cookies, diet drinks, or cigarettes–have long been sold as drugs, as magical cures…. Consuming, in other words, is our placebo.


This is what makes consumerism so tenacious—it makes us feel better without fulfilling any of its promises. It’s essentially a means for circulating promises; the products themselves are, in a sense, by-products—just props for the healing daydreams.

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