Death By Side Effect

TV commercials now sell prescription drugs, including controlled substances like testosterone. Is 30 seconds of knowledge a dangerous thing?

I spend a lot of time outside of the country. When I come back to the United States, in order to become reacquainted with my native culture, I often vegetate on the sofa and watch television for a few days. All right, I’ll be honest here, when I come home I tend to be pretty damn lazy, but American television (which rules the world), and the ever-increasing amount of commercials bombarding our senses, are excellent ways to gage the moods and changing trends of our society.

I’ve noticed over the years how commercials have become longer and louder, and how the number of ads for prescription drugs have steadily increased. The latter is probably due, at least in part, to the baby boomers hitting retirement age.

The advertisements that have caught my attention this time around are for underarm testosterone treatments. I’d never seen testosterone ads on television before, but these promos seem to be running all the time, although, for obvious reasons, I didn’t catch any when I watched The View (not my normal fodder) this morning, which was a refreshing change.

Men with low or no testosterone should consult their doctors, and take part in testosterone treatment if needed, yet I’m exceedingly distrustful of national ad campaigns plugging the benefits of topical testosterone without educating the public about the specific reasons a man should take testosterone in the first place. Instinct tells me there are men out there who hear the word ‘testosterone,’ and think, “Yeah, that’s my hormone. I’ll be more macho, my libido will soar, and the girls won’t be able to keep their hands off me.” Such is the mindset of the low information consumer.

I believe there are two reasons why television ads should not be pushing prescription medication, no matter the drug in question. First of all, most laymen don’t know as much about pharmacology as doctors and pharmacists do (at least I hope that’s the case). Let’s take a look at our imaginary friend Joe, a guy who really isn’t a candidate for testosterone treatment, but happens to catch a testosterone ad on television one day. Joe likes what he sees, and decides he wants to me more ‘manly,’ in the traditional sense of the word, similar to a mixed martial arts fighter, perhaps, like Jon Jones. The advisement then instructs Joe to tell his doctor about this wonderful new product. He’s been coached to ask his dealer, in this case his doctor, to give him a drug that he probably doesn’t need, based upon knowledge he received from a 30 second television spot. If Joe were a true candidate for testosterone treatments, his doctor should be the one telling him about his options, not the other way around. If our hypothetical friend doesn’t trust his doctor, or believes he’s better informed because he watches a lot of TV, he might want to sign up for medical school, or find a different doctor.

The second reason, and something that actually bothers me more than the ‘pusher’ nature of these ads, are the horrendous side effects. Again, if someone really has a testosterone problem, or another nettlesome medical condition, the side effects might be worth the risks, but these decisions shouldn’t be made with information gathered from the same folks who use the same marketing techniques to get us to buy a new flavor of Twinkie.

In case you were wondering, and haven’t been watching television recently (I have, and my brain hurts), here are some of the potential side effects the underarm testosterone advertisements warn of:

Product can transfer from your body to others, causes signs of puberty not expected in young children, causes enlarged penis or clitoris in children through secondary contact, increases aggressive behavior, increases acne, harms unborn or breast-feeding babies, aggravates enlarged prostate gland, increases nightly urination, increases risk of prostate cancer, lowers sperm count, swelling of ankles and body, sleep apnea, blood clots in the legs, diarrhea, headaches, vomiting … .

I’m not picking on testosterone commercials exclusively here; it’s just that I’ve noticed a huge upsurge in testosterone marketing. The brutal side effects seem like they would deter all but the most committed and serious user, but I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.

The choices a man makes with his doctors about the medicine he chooses to take or avoid are his own. My concern is that profit and human nature are moving health decisions away from trained professionals, and into the realm of low information consumers, as well as drug companies trying to sell as much of their product as they possibly can.

Rather than tell your doctor what’s best for you, based on an endless onslaught of drug ads, you might want to find a physician you trust, listen to what he or she has to say, and then have a conversation about your options instead. Demanding medical consumers tend to act before they think, because when they want something they want it now, but they might actually be playing Russian roulette with some very deadly side effects.

Just because you heard it on TV, doesn’t make it so. Believe it or not, advertisers don’t always have your best interests at heart. Ten out of twelve doctors have said so, or maybe I’m just making that part up. How would you really know?


Read more of Carl Pettit’s weekly column, Root Down, on The Good Life.

Image credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

About Carl Pettit

Carl Pettit is a writer, illustrator and musician whose education and travels have taken him all over the world. When not out exploring, or pondering the universe, he finds time to produce fiction for both adults and children. You can catch up with him on his blog, or twitter.


  1. It's all relative says:

    And always good to keep in mind is that side effects of drugs are so named and marketed in that manner because they do not represent the desired effect of why the drug is being prescribed/marketed. In reality there are no “side effects”. They are all effects of the drug.

  2. I get upset whenever I see ads for anti psychotic drugs like Abilify and Zyprexa being marketed for people with depression. I have a family member who is schizophrenic, and takes these drugs to control her delusions and hallucinations. In her case, they are life savers. But they come at a terrible cost, including metabolic changes that put her at risk of diabetes and have contributed to her weight gain of over 100 pounds in just a couple years. She’s also had neurological side effects. Personally, I’ve suffered from episodes of major depression so I know what a struggle it is to find relief. But the VAST majority of people with depression do NOT need powerful antipsychotic meds. These drugs are not in the same class as normal antidepressants like Prozac or Wellbutrin (which are also powerful drugs that I believe may be over prescribed, but that’s another issue)…. Abilify, Zyprexa and other antipsychotics are very, veryserious meds. If they were marketing the drugs for people with psychosis I’d have fewer problems with it — in fact, such a marketing campaign might be almost a public service to encourage psychotic people to take their meds, which is a good thing. But truly psychotic people are not a profitable demographic. They are too sick, too marginalized, and often living on disability or other public assistance and lack health insurance. People with middle-of-the-road depression, on the other hand — ka-ching!! These are the people the drug companies want. They are people who are suffering but who are functional and they have access to doctors and insurance to pay for these meds. Many depressed people become disappointed with standard SSRI’s — they really aren’t a miracle cure. They don’t fix the underlying issues that contribute to depression. But many people still hold out hope for the silver bullet pill that will stop their emotional pain so they are very vulnerable to this kind of misleading advertising.


  1. […] Pettit writes at the Good Men Project: I’ve noticed over the years how commercials have become longer and louder, and how the number of […]

  2. […] Pettit writes at the Good Men Project: I’ve noticed over the years how commercials have become longer and louder, and how the number of […]

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