A FEW YEARS AGO, THE FDA gave the OK to air TV ads for prescription medicine, with one key proviso: The blurbs had to include possible side effects for anyone taking the drugs.The resulting commercials are as entertaining and surreal as anything that has ever aired on television. As the camera shows happy-peppy people living life to the fullest thanks to their newfound prescriptions, an unseen announcer tries to maintain a calm voice as he rushes through a litany of horrifying physical side effects. Still, these ads offer a valuable lesson to Hollywood, which is currently under fire for its marketing practices. Take, for example, Ditropan-XL, a product “for overactive bladder proven to reduce wetting accidents,” as the overactive announcer intones. In other words, it’s a pill to keep you from peeing in your pants. In the “funny” commercial, a middle-age couple are driving in a car, but she keeps grinding her teeth and asking to make potty stops. By the end of the ad, the woman is clearly a user of Ditropan-XL: She’s smiling and doesn’t have to stop and tinkle. However, the announcer warns, “If you have certain types of stomach, urinary or glaucoma problems, you should not take Ditropan-XL. … In studies, the most common side effect was dry mouth. Other side effects may include constipation, drowsiness, blurred vision, dizziness, diarrhea and nausea.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather risk a wet car seat. Still, the FDA may have stumbled upon a solution to the scandal of Hollywood’s film ads. Last week, Daily Variety revealed that several studios used marketing staffers in those “man-on-the-street” TV ads promoting their films. (As if anyone in Hollywood could be mistaken for a real person!) In the future, studios could add little printed disclaimers at the bottom of the screen: “Caren works for the studio marketing department. … Brandon and Tiffany were paid to say this. …” And announcers should offer warnings during trailers for films. “If you tend to be confused at lapses in plot logic, ‘Pearl Harbor’ may not be for you. The loud explosions may cause a headache or temporary loss of hearing; at any rate, the film will result in a permanent loss of $9. Consult a reliable friend before you pay your money.”
HOLLYWOOD IS TO BE commended for its scrupulous hand-wringing over this wrongdoing. (Or perhaps everyone is just wringing their hands over having been caught.) But the problem with all this attention to showbiz honesty is profound: Once you start pulling this thread, where does it end?Audiences at “The Tonight Show” whoop and whistle when a star appears, but should NBC issue a disclaimer admitting that the “Applause” sign was lit? The current Redbook has a cover story on John Travolta, labeling him “Hollywood’s happiest husband.” Do we know this for a fact? In most man-on-the-street testimonials — for everything from sunglasses to abdominal exercisers — people know they’re on camera, so they tend to be unrelentingly positive. America, is, after all, a nation of very polite people. (Or a nation of shameless hams, depending on your viewpoint.) So what about these studio marketers: Are they shameless hucksters, or innocently unaware of the fact that there are federal guidelines for honest ads? A few years ago, a film critic informed me that MGM had faxed him 10 quotes in praise of a Bill Murray movie, “Larger Than Life”; the studio, he said, told him to attach his name to whichever quote he felt most comfortable with. I contacted other majors and every person contacted said they were shocked — shocked! — at the studio’s indiscretion. But when the story ran in Daily Variety, I was besieged with calls: “Why are you picking on MGM? Every studio does this.” A word of pity, then, for the overzealous studio marketing departments. For a zippy man-on-the-street TV ad, they must wade through throngs of random interviews, looking for the perfect sound bite. There’s a fine line between doing that and recruiting good-looking people who can be “encouraged” to praise your product. And, after a 12-hour day, when you’re tired, it’s easier to just grab a colleague and say, “Would you just say ‘It’s the perfect date movie!’ on camera so we can get out of here?” The poor marketers, then, are under incredible pressure. And who can blame them for being ignorant of vague FTC guidelines when they are working in an atmosphere where there are no standards of right and wrong? Oy, what a dilemma. Really, it’s enough to make you pee in your pants.