Oh, Sepia Toned Lady Who Is Too Depressed to Look Out the Window! Ever since pharmaceutical companies got the go-ahead to market medication directly to consumers, she's been an advertising powerhouse. Sometimes she doesn't want to go camping. Sometimes she doesn't want to cook eggs. She never wants to play with the goddamn dog. And she raises the question: "What in the fucking fuck, advertising?" Why is depression persistently characterized as such a starkly gendered disease?
For many people, anti-depressants are lifesavers. Or they can vastly improve the quality of an individual's life. Anti-depressants aren't the problem here. The problem is how they're marketed—television almost certainly isn't the optimal delivery mechanism for medical advice, obviously. And a quick survey of prominent antidepressant commercials (below) reveals that they focus overwhelmingly on women—to the detriment of both women and men. The overall effect that advertising has had on perceptions of mental illness might be positive to a degree (awareness is helpful!), but by framing depression as a "woman problem," they both discourage men from taking their symptoms seriously and anchor women even more firmly in the bullshit bog of hyper-emotionality. Depression: It's like when Carol is on the rag, only all the time!
Anyway, let's take a look.
Cymbalta #1: Cymbalta is a drug for Dust Bowl prairie women who are so depressed they have to sit on the stairs instead of a comfy chair, and for failed housewives who just want their dumb kids to leave them alone. Also Stringer Bell. Cymbalta helps them to be able to look out the window, touch the dog, and go shoe-shopping again (shoes, amirite ladies!? [dies]).
Cymbalta #2: Before Cymbalta, I never looked out the window or went camping. Now I look out the window and go camping, like, all the time! So glad I had the opportunity to inform my doctor about the existence of this very well-known medication!
Abilify #1: This Abilify commercial characterizes depression as an adorable blue googly-eyed anthropomorphic robe that you can take on and off at will. You know! A loving friend who keeps you cozy! Just like depressi—oh. Luckily, Wise Male Doctor is here to let that silly lady know that she should probably just take off the robe and put it on a chair. See? Not depressed anymore! It's important to note that Abilify isn't actually an antidepressant—it's an antipsychotic being marketed as a supplementary medication to just give your antidepressant a little kick. Because that's the kind of medical decision that consumers who relate to this trivializing robe metaphor should probably be making for themselves. Cool plan, Abilify.
Abilify #2: In this Abilify commercial, depression takes the form of a weird be-eyeballed hole that follows the lady around like a loyal dog (a loyal dog that also happens to be a potentially fatal disease). Oh, thank god you're here, Wise Male Doctor. Please, show me a slideshow that is just slides of you talking.
Wellbutrin XL: Oh, good! This lady feels like herself again, now that she's taking Wellbutrin XL. When she was depressed, she was somebody else—the kind of non-person who doesn't like standing on verandas or rowing a boat around a very small silty pond. Also, I don't know if you heard, but WELLBUTRIN XL HAS A LOW RISK OF SEXUAL SIDE EFFECTS. Did we mention it has a low risk of sexual side effects?
Pristiq #1: Again, people suffering from depression aren't themselves—they're eerie robots like this wind-up doll, who can only speak in concerned whispers! I totally understand that there's no perfect metaphor for depression, and advertisers have to do something, but we don't come up with dehumanizing metaphors for other diseases. I've never seen a commercial where some old lady is like, "I carry my diabetes around with me like this creepy cymbal-playing monkey!" In the end, once Pristiq takes effect, the wind-up doll is reduced to an amusing toy. So, not like chronic depression at all, really. But at least the lady can sell antiques again! Yay!
Pristiq #2: Another common symptom of lady-depression is extremely tight eyeball close-ups. Once the camera pulls back, you know Pristiq has done its work. Mommy's depression is gone! WIFFLE BALL PARTY!!! At least the Pristiq commercials make an attempt to explain how the medication works on the brain. That's a level of transparency that most sad-lady-looking-out-the-window commercials don't bother with. But that's a small upside in what is still an inherently problematic cultural phenomenon.
Seroquel XR #1: This lady forgot how to have fun on the swings because a tiny magical cloud follows her around. Her friend can't have fun at her book club for the same reason. Like many of these commercials, this one does feature a man—but he gets about 14 seconds of screen time. The rest of the ad's 1:31 runtime is populated entirely by women and (like most of the ads featured here) is narrated by a woman.
Seroquel XR #2: Without Seroquel XR (which is, like Abilify, an antipsychotic), this ad contends, you'll just blend in with the couch and sit motionless forever until you die. In the end, after she hears about Seroquel XR, the lady finally gets up off the couch and—the ad implies—gets her life together. Getting off the couch might be an important part of some people's mental health treatment, but it is ultimately an oversimplification, an advertising trope. All of these ads have one thing in common—they imply that depression is a black-and-white issue (or, rather, a sepia-and-color one). You either have it or you don't. People suffering from persistent depression just aren't bothering to solve their own problem by taking one of these magical Technicolor robe-unraveling pills. There's a pill that washes the sepia away? Then why is anyone depressed at all? The reality is just not that simple. But advertising, unlike reality, is inherently reductive. It works by tugging on our base, oversimplified desires. To apply cynical marketing techniques to something as complex, stigmatized, and gravely serious as mental illness is deeply troubling. One might even say fucked!
As Katherine Sharpe wrote on HuffPo last year:
Most of all, the ads are full of women, a fact as true today as it was in 1967. Advertising must be at least partly responsible for the fact that over twice as many women as men use antidepressants. The following ads show women who need medication because they fail to thrive in female roles (lover, wife, mother), or because they are oppressed by the demands of those roles (the trapped housewife, the harried working parent).
The fact that antidepressants are overwhelmingly marketed to women hurts everyone. (Take note, men! This is one of the ways that feminism fights for you too!) By framing depression as situational, rainy-day sadness that affects over-emotional ladies, these ads both mischaracterize actual depression and stigmatize it as a feminine weakness. If looking-out-the-window-while-sad is a woman's disease, then what are depressed men supposed to do? Just suck it up, I guess.
I don't know if there's a good way to market antidepressants directly to consumers (my money's on fuck no!), but I'm 99% sure that turning depression into an adorable furry pocket-pal that only affects affluent women and girly-men isn't it.
Image by Jim Cooke