Warning: Promo may cause consternation

A few years ago, the FDA gave the OK to air TV ads for prescription medicine, with one key proviso: The blurbs had to list possible side effects.

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 rushes through a litany of horrifying physical side effects.

The 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.” In other words, it’s a pill to keep you from peeing in your pants.

In the 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.

Recently, Variety revealed that several studios used marketing staffers in “man-on-the-street” TV ads promoting their films. But in the future, studios could add little 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 its wrongdoing. But the problem is: 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?

A recent issue of Redbook has a cover story on John Travolta, labeling him “Hollywood’s happiest husband.” Do we know this for a fact?

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 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 are under incredible pressure. And who can blame them for being ignorant of vague FTC guidelines when they’re working in an atmosphere in which there are no standards of right and wrong?

Oy, what a dilemma. Really, it’s enough to make you pee in your pants.

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