EXHIBITS: Peddling Health

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Science  05 Apr 2002:
Vol. 296, Issue 5565, pp. 19
DOI: 10.1126/science.296.5565.19d

Doctors flack their services on TV. Pharmaceutical companies pitch prescription allergy and heart disease remedies directly to consumers. Ads for herbal supplements promise near-miraculous results. The Medicine and Madison Avenue Web site aims to kindle a discussion of the ethics of such modern advertising by documenting the roots and evolution of the “health sell.”

Hosted by Duke University, this exhibit on the early history of health-related advertising showcases more than 600 vintage magazine and newspaper ads from 1911 to 1960. Some of the ads are disturbing because of racial stereotypes, but some are unintentionally hilarious. Phillips' Milk of Magnesia antacid offers a cure for this unappetizing scenario: “He ate a whale of a dinner—then smoked incessantly all night.” Others evoke almost-forgotten health threats such as malaria and diphtheria.

Helpful background information calls attention to some of the trends in content and style. For example, the Cold War saw an explosion of “fear ads” that played on consumers' concerns and insecurities. You can also read documents from one of the first cases against a manufacturer, when the Federal Trade Commission sued the maker of Fleischmann's yeast in 1931 for buying endorsements.


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