Medical Ads; Then and Now

Go ahead, Google a term like “weight loss” and stand by for the marketing onslaught – for days afterward you will get web advertisements for weight loss programs or diet pills.  Even as you read this, your inbox, or your junk mail folder, is likely to have a come-on for some sort of health related issue.  Web searches are notorious for surfacing information of widely varying quality.  Even the health care profession itself has some difficulty in sorting scientific fact from anecdotal experience and judging the quality of each, so perhaps lay people should not be blamed for being a bit confused.  After all, if they put it on the internet, it must be true.  

You may think this is a new phenomenon; a development of the internet age where an unregulated medium has the opportunity to present pretty much anything it wants.  You would be wrong.  When we did a blog several weeks ago on peninsula news a century ago, we couldn’t help but notice that the newspapers of yesteryear seem to be a lot like the internet of today.  That seems particularly true when it comes to health and advertising.  

Just looking through the four pages of a daily paper like the Port Townsend Morning Leader suggests that ads for pharmaceuticals represented a substantial income stream.  Each page has several display ads for products like Chichesters Pills, Santal-Midy and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound – popularly known as Lydia Pinkham’s Pink Medicine – as well as advertisements disguised as news items.  In the latter category it seems Foley’s Kidney Pills and Chamberlain’s Tablets (“to strengthen the digestion and keep the bowels regular”) were frequent flyers.  

Some of the claims made in these advertisements could put modern day weight loss hucksters to shame.  Lydia Pinkham’s, for example, listed a host of “female ailments” that could be successfully treated.  Santal-Midy was a concoction of sandalwood oil that was supposed to treat a variety of conditions that included gonorrhea, gleet, catarrh of the bladder and suppurative nephritis.  The unrestrained nature of the claims seems to have been contributory in the formation of the Food and Drug Administration and the continuing efforts to curb unsubstantiated advertising in the pharmaceutical arena.  Santal-Midy was an early victim of the FDA which found its claims unsupportable, though other remedies have actually survived till today by moderating their claims.



The FDA exists today and can provide some protection from outrageous claims on the World Wide Web but health information is still a chancy commodity on the web where advertisements for legitimate drugs can exist side by side with anecdotal reports of cures.  Some efforts are being made to assure the quality of health information on the web.  The Health on the Net Foundation has worked to set standards for health information on websites and offers badges and tools to evaluate health information and identify sites that conform to good practices. 

It took years for the FDA to weed through the blizzard of claims and begin to make headway against false and misleading advertising of health benefits.  It will take years more to sort through the web based advertising.  As to the emails, your best hope is a good spam filter.  


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