Hiding Side Effects in Plain Sight

Hiding Side Effects in Plain Sight


Thanks to the looks passing between the partners in scenarios featuring three attractive, middle-aged couples, viewers have no trouble imagining the reward of taking Cialis. The brand obviously wants viewers to perceive Cialis as a product for virile men with eager wives, rather than for older guys with an embarrassing problem. And the association seems to work.

What’s interesting about this and other pharmaceutical ads is how well the warnings and side effects are hidden in plain sight. The musical soundtrack and visuals of couples canoodling continue throughout the ad but the announcer’s dialogue veers from the benefits of Cialis into 30 seconds of warnings and potential side effects. Those side effects go well beyond the four-hour erection that is the butt of comedians’ jokes to loss of vision and difficulty breathing. Some side effects are even highlighted in a yellow bar across the screen.

What’s the impact of all this frightening information? Not much. What better testament could there be to how little viewers pay attention to what is literally said in an ad?

Drug companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars airing ads like this because they know viewers pick up on the message of hope for an improvement in a high-stakes medical condition and largely disregard the negative data. The impact of an ad does not depend upon literal information contained. Viewers don’t rationally and consciously analyze the content of the ad. This ad’s impact depends on simple association of the brand with attractive, amorous couples. Potential side effects are not visually dramatized—merely quietly narrated–and are therefore ignored.

While the ad moves the brand in the desired direction, it is not an ad that viewers are happy to see or eager to share. It’s an ad that is endured.

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