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The Patent Medicine Paradigm

At the dawn of the consumerist era, when commercial interests first began to break up the church’s monopoly on ameliorating our unfortunate awareness of our physical and spiritual frailty, patent medicines quickly came to the forefront. Proprietary nostrums, whose dubious efficacy rests more or less on whether a placebo effect takes hold, not only testify to our eternally renewable capacity for hope and faith in the face of hard reality, but they are among the most efficient means for giving universal human anxieties — illness and death — a concrete saleable form.

So it’s no surprise that they became one of consumer capitalism’s earliest advertised products, emblematic of how, as historian Jackson Lears has argued, consumer culture emerged to administer to therapeutic needs: “the fretful preoccupation with preserving secular well-being, the anxious concern with regenerating selfhood — these provided fertile ground for the growth of national advertising and for the spread of a new way of life” (The Culture of Consumption Pantheon, 1984). This makes patent medicines paradigmatic of consumerism in general, one of the quintessential consumer products, objectifying the instinct for survival the same way pornography reifies the libido.

The earliest national ad campaigns revealed symbiotic relation between nascent ad agencies and patent medicine makers. James Harvey Young, in his history of American patent medicines, reports that nostrums “provided the “backbone” of the typical agency’s business.” Young cites early copywriter Claude Hopkins, who claims “the greatest advertising men of my day were schooled in the medicine field” which brought “the supreme test” of an adman’s skills, since medicines were worthless merchandise until a demand was created.” (The Toadstool Millionaires, Princeton University Press, 1961). Since the patent medicine was often nothing in itself, just a brand name, ads were fundamental in giving the products’ aura of effectiveness — consuming a patent medicine was essentially swallowing the ad copy.

At the heart of such copy is always the brand, which is more important than any ingredients a patent medicine might have contained. The medicine’s brand name, made familiar through ads, is the fundamental pretense necessary to initiate the placebo effect, and ever since, brands for all sorts of products have retained something of that magical quality, the ability to change our perception of reality with mere words. In essence, all branded products operate on the principle pioneered by patent medicines. While a brand’s power may stem from its reputational history, its fashion value, and its ability to signal the capital behind it, its usefulness stems from how it can supplant the object it brands. Without a brand name, the all-curative Swaim’s Panacea is just sarsaparilla soda, and a Big Mac is just a crummy cheeseburger. But as long as we are willing to be seduced by products, we can use them to construct a pleasing fantasy world independent of the product’s actual nature.

Advertisements have adapted to enact this seduction, borrowing techniques from itinerant peddlers and carnival hucksters of the pre-mass media era to lull us into that passive and pleasing state of receptivity in which we suspend disbelief and invest our imagination in the possibilities a brand can evoke. According to Lears, the “cultural history of American advertising could be characterized as the attempt to conjure up the magic of self-transformation through purchase while at the same time containing the subversive implications of a successful trick.” (Fables of Abundance, Basic Books, 1994) Thus, we allow ourselves to pretend a car really can change our personality, having a beer really is relaxing, makeup really is glamorous, and cough drops really do provide relief. This is not because the ads are especially clever or deceptive (or the products especially efficacious); rather we collaborate with them in creating this fantasy world the same way we cooperate with films and TV shows and novels in order to bring them to life and afford ourselves a space in which we may safely and temporarily transform ourselves into someone else.

The stories ads create for brands are essentially no different than those fashioned in popular entertainment, and the two species of social communication work in mutually reinforcing ways. Both want to convince us that suspending disbelief, embracing that as a kind of optimism and imaginative investment, is pleasing for its own sake, and both use similar tactics (humor, suspense, acute irrationalism, non sequitur, genre convention; encouraging absorption in a comfortably formulaic and highly structured plot) to accomplish that aim. They gratify our longing for escape with something temporary and fictitious protecting us from the chaos and the costs real perpetual metamorphoses would entail. By believing completely in the fiction, we can demonstrate the superiority of our imagination while at the same time reap the benefits of it. Ads and popular culture exercise our imagination, and the exercise feels good. Why would anyone (outside the Brechtian theater) bother with the perversity of resisting? Slowly we become convinced that consuming something (entertainment, a branded product) is equivalent to doing something — that the fictitious escape is no different than real experience, that our imaginative investment in a product makes us creative, more alive.

And since we are putting all this imagination into bringing the stories imbedded in brands and TV shows and whatnot to life, shouldn’t we really think of ourselves as being producers as well as consumers? Isn’t the very act of cultural consumption always already an act of production as well? These are comforting notions: Conflating production with consumption permits us to plan a highly productive evening around the Thursday night prime-time TV schedule. But when we regard cultural consumption as the consumer’s production of emotional states within himself, we have shifted the locus of the consumer’s 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.

Patent medicines (and branded products generally) encourage us to focus exclusively on ourselves, to reject the pursuit of social utopias for strictly personal fountains of youth. The recent craze for resveratrol, a substance found in red wine that has apparently prolonged the life of lab rats in recent studies, illustrates how strongly the patent medicine paradigm remains with us. Because it’s a dietary supplement rather than a pharmaceutical, resveratrol exists in that gray area patent medicines once occupied, outside of the bounds of government regulation and the watchful eye of actual medical professionals, and can be marketed directly to consumers. As The Wall Street Journal‘s Zachary Seward reports, “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.”

In the old days, resveratrol’s rise from obscurity to mass-market supplement would have depended on sheer medicine-show hucksterism and flamboyant advertising, but newfangled cure-alls rely on journalists and editors generating hype by extrapolating the most optimistic implications from the limited conclusions of scientific studies in order to craft the most captivating headline and give readers’ imaginations the most substantive meat to feast on. Though studies usually only tentatively offer correlations rather than conclusive connections and are often contradicted by later studies, they nevertheless function the same way brands do, providing the germ of scientific fact upon which a fantasy of control over our own mortality can be elaborated and marketed. The study’s finer statistical details are insignificant to the lay reader; more important is the air of plausibility that they provide, taking the far-fetched, hokey appeal of a patent medicine and deepening it, making it slightly more sophisticated, more capable of breaking down the barriers that our rational mind puts between us and the blandishments of ads, between ourselves and our dreams of omnipotence.

“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. Vitacost.com Inc., a large online retailer in Boynton Beach, Fla., says sales of its resveratrol supplements increased tenfold in that week.” (Quest for Youth Drives Craze For ‘Wine’ Pills”, Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2006).

Whether or not resveratrol really works is ultimately irrelevant to the consumers rushing to buy it. The mere promise of hope is enough to entice them. Whether it extends life is irrelevant to its usefulness; what matters, as in popular entertainment, is whether the story it suggests is reasonably plausible. That the supplement’s efficacy remains undetermined means only that it engages consumers on a more imaginative level than, say, Nexium. In the absence of proof there blossoms the possibility for any number of entertaining, hope-engendering stories; hence a tactic familiar from patent medicine ads: the testimonial. Seward talks to William S. Gruss, a cardiologist whose shills (“there’s absolutely no risk”) for a product called Revatrol. “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, the money is not really wasted, regardless of whether reservatrol actually does anything. Whether its patent medicines or unproven herbal supplements or brand-name soap, the use of the product is an experiential good, the same way going to Disneyland or the new James Bond movie are. The return on money spent on Revatrol shouldn’t be measured in terms of how many years it extends your life, but rather on how much of a sense of control it gives you now, and the extent to which it permits you to tell stories to yourself that make you happy.