Patent medicine as paradigm

[1 December 2006]

By Rob Horning

The early history of advertising is dominated by patent medicines—proprietary nostrums of dubious efficacy whose curative powers often rely on whether the placebo effect takes hold (that is if opium wasn’t a primary ingredient). Not only do these products target a universal human vulnerablility, but they testify to our eternally renewable capacity for hope and faith in the face of hard reality. When commercial interests seized some of the power away from the church to cater to our unfortunate awareness of our physical and spiritual fraility, patent medicines quickly came to the forefront, the most efficient means for reifying human anxiety and capitalizing on it. The patent medicine was often nothing in itself, just a brand name, and ads were necessary to build up the products’ aura of effectiveness—consuming a patent medicine was essentially swallowing the ad copy, literally. The brand name itself generates a placebo effect; its value lies in the often spurious belief it can inspire. The power of a brand also rests in its reputational history, its fashion value, and the manner in which it signals the capital invested in it; but there’s still that leap of faith that lets you consume the brand in lieu of the object that’s branded—that lets you eat the cheeseburger but taste McDonald’s, that lets the name affect the way something tastes as though it were an added spice. That requires both suspension of disbelief and an investment of one’s imagination. With old-time patent medicines, the degree to which one was seduced by the ads probably had a lot to do with how effective one eventually felt the medicine was; if one cooperated with the promoters and optimistically seized upon the ads’ suspect promises, one was likely to have a better experience of the product. For the consumerist economy, skeptics need not apply.

Patent medicines seemed to me paradigmatic of consumerism in general, one of the quintessential consumer products, doing to health and the survival instinct what pornography does for sex and the libido: if we are willing to be seduced by products and open ourselves to the sweet nothings of commercials, we can use them to construct a pleasing fantasy world independent of the product’s apparent function. The incantatory, repetitive nature of advertisements collectively seems ultimately suited to lulling us into that passive and pleasing state of receptivity, in which we suspend disbelief and want to believe in the tangential effects products are alleged to have on our essential being— a car really can change our personality, having a beer really is relaxing, makeup really is glamorous, cough drops really do provide relief. This led me to suspect that ads and popular entertainment work in mutually reinforcing ways—both want to convince us that suspending disbelief, embracing that as a kind of optimism an dimaginative investment, is pleasing for its own sake, and both use similar tactics (humor, suspense, acute irrationalism, non sequitur, genre convention; encouaging absorption in a comfortably formulaic and highly structured plot) to accomplish that aim. Slowly we become convinced that consuming something (entertainment, a branded product) is equivalent to doing something—that our imaginative investment in a product makes us creative, more alive. By believing completely in the fiction, we demonstrate the superiority of our imagination while at the same time reaping the benefits of it; ads and popular culture exercise our imagination, and the exercise feels good. Why bother with the perversity of resisting?

The conflation of production and consumption operates on many levels, from planning an evening around watching TV shows to the elaboration of theory which argues a consumer actually produces the product he consumes through his unique manner of consuming it. (“When I listen to Bad Company, I’m resisting its cliches about the rocker as outlaw while using them to interrogate the cultural system that both demonizes and lionizes the performer as icon” or “By putting myself in the place of the characters on Veronica Mars, I am imaginatively reproducing the show in my mind, producing conclusions that the show’s creators could not have expected me to come to.”) To a certain extent such elisions between production and consumption are inevitable; resources are consumed in the production of anything. But when we regard cultural consumption as the consumer’s production of emotional states within himself, we have shifted the locus of meaningful work away from society—from the shared world of experience in which we enrich and validate what one another achieve—to our interior consciousness.

Anyway, what started me thinking about patent medicines was this articleby Zachary Seward in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about the recent craze for resveratrol, a substance found in red wine that has apparently prolonged the life of lab rats in recent studies. Resveratrol’s rise from obscurity to mass-market supplement seems a modernized version of the old patent medicine story, with some new wrinkles. First, rather than rely on medicine show hucksterism and bald-faced lies, newfangled cure-alls rely on the journalistic abuse of scientific studies to generate hype. The most optimistic implications are extrapolated from the limited conclusions of a study because this will give readers’ imaginations the most substantive meat to feast on. These studies provide the germ of scientific fact upon which a fantasy of control over our own mortality can be elaborated and marketed. Then, skirting FDA regulation and the intermediaries of medical professionals, the herbal product can be marketed directly to consumers:

More than a dozen supplements featuring resveratrol are sold in health-food stores and online. But dietary supplements are only lightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and manufacturers don’t have to demonstrate efficacy in order to market a product.
Despite those caveats, several retailers report a large jump in sales of resveratrol supplements. Whole Foods Market Inc., the national health-foods chain, sold out of its resveratrol product at many stores earlier this month, though a spokeswoman declined to give sales figures.
Bill Sardi, founder and president of Resveratrol Partners LLC, which since 2003 has marketed online a supplement derived from giant knotweed, a Chinese plant, says, “I’m having to place rush orders from China because this thing is wild.” Mr. Sardi says his company sold as many boxes of its product, Longevinex, in the week after the first study appeared in the journal Nature as it did in the previous six months. Inc., a large online retailer in Boynton Beach, Fla., says sales of its resveratrol supplements increased tenfold in that week. Source Naturals Inc., another supplement maker, says it has seen a “large jump” in sales of its resveratrol product.

Whether or not it really works is irrelevant to the story, as irrelevant as whether or not Huck Finn or Sherlock Holmes really existed. That its efficacy remains undetermined means only that it engages consumers on a more imaginative level than, say, Nexium. It provides an occasion for the exercise of faith and optimism, which we are always reminded are extremely positive qualities, for their own sake. In the absence of proof there blossoms the possibility for any number of pleasing stories; hence a tactic very familiar from patent medicine ads—the testimonial:

William S. Gruss, a cardiologist whose image, signature and testimonial—“there’s absolutely no risk”—are featured prominently in Revatrol’s marketing, says Renaissance paid him but declines to say how much.
“Am I going to live longer because of Revatrol? I’ll let you know,” says Dr. Gruss. “But if it turned out not to live up to all of its promises, well then, no harm done.”

No harm done? What about the millions of dollars wasted on a placebo? But if the placebo effect has worked, people are likely happy to have paid for the privilege. Essentially, using patent medicines or unproven herbal supplements is an experiential good, the same way going to Disneyland or the James Bond movie are. So the return on money spent on Revatrol won’t be measured in terms of how many years it extends your life but how much of a sense of control it gives you, how much it permits you to tell stories to yourself that make you happy.

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