Trippy Drug Commercials

Who Framed Roger Rabbit depicts a world gone animation mad. Not looney, mind you, just stark crazed and cockeyed. And it, fittingly, hastened our own descent. The cackling voice, wobbling, red, demented eyes of Judge Doom (and the fate of a whimpering, condemned shoe) were etched in the lobes of legions of children now come of age to realize the prescience and depth of the portended horror. Zemeckis’ 1988 cartoon/live-action hybrid-noir offered a world where living, breathing people and animated characters live side-by-side—a veritable utopia in the mind’s eye of any kid. Despite the dingy urban squalor, sexual charge, and metastasized industry, it retains a sense of wonder for much of its running time; then it’s steamrolled, inflated, and emulsified in toon-melting acid, curdling the hybridity and revealing it to be altogether nightmarish, demented, grotesque, phantasmagoric, and hellish.

And with good cause. There’s an underbelly to the zaniness of cartoon elasticity, something it is designed to paper over—a world where evil and cynicism thrive. In Roger Rabbit, the filth of noir is juxtaposed with the rubbery goofiness of animation; and the abrasion rubs both ways—the silly inflections lighten the grimness of the hardboiled narrative, and the salient signifiers of the “real” world of the hard-drinking gumshoe shades Toontown. Reality, such as it is, is filtered through a cartoon framework. Sure, the bad guy is defeated and the day is saved, but the tenor until then careens society toward a precipice, where multiple corporate, municipal, and social interests are mobilized. It’s a transition point, one where, at face, society moves from a place of innocence to cognizance—with attendant despair and decay as omnipresent motifs—but, more accurately, it moves into an age where that which existed before is more foreboding and more recognizable, the cracks in the façade finally giving way. Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s dissident traumatic mantle is the true lark of this intersection. The sunny and happy world of cartoons is a ruse wherein the drudgery of churning it out is laid out and dissected.

One of the grand, overlooked sentiments of Zemeckis’ hybrid world is how it literalizes our fetishization of cartoons. In this modernity, industries of all stripes create cutesy characters precision-crafted for maximum synergy. Cartoon mascots, character-filled advertisements and promotions, and the like scrub our perceptions and knowledge through dubious redirection—through childhood whimsy and simplicity, that is. From birth, we learn the motion and rhythm of the world through animated analogues, and we cling to these forms as idyllic baselines. What does this say about our placement as the consumers of these pieces? And how does it skew our contextualization of products and corporations? We’re living in a mixed live-action/cartoon world, and we rarely admit how much this is true. It’s a ubiquitous tactic across all walks; tires, tuna, life insurance, gasoline, batteries, breakfast cereal, broccoli, fabric softener, supermarkets, beer, pickles, all these disparate industries use this trope. Why? To conceal the origins and process of the product? Does it make us feel better about consuming something? Does it placate in the manner a tactfully deployed toy once did? Is it easier if the tuna we are eating has a smiling proxy, or if a burly tiger looks at us reassuringly as we fill the gas tank? Is it meant as a distraction? And what are the psychological repercussions, and what does this mix says about our collective needs and attitudes? Or is it all in good fun and we should all just embrace the cartooned world?

Anthropomorphized anatomy is the apotheosis of this form. It’s a baser, more direct distillation of our collective relationship with brands, wherein we tie them to the abstractions of our health and our biology. Because the relation is so specific and so intimate, these mascots expose the willful cognitive disconnection that is engendered in the infantilization of the cartoon world. It fizzles and reforms the very mechanisms that keep us alive so as to make them simplistic and digestible. It fully dissociates our relation to our physicality, externalizing and sublimating the dread and discomfort of physical ailment to guide and focus brand reception. Our guts are turned into ersatz, plastic placeholders, all the specifics and complications of their function are glossed and the generalization makes all our choices plain and easy. It marks a decided and aggressive belittling, wherein, through cartooning body parts and organs, we are put back into the hapless position of a child at the doctor’s office, hand-held through stick-figure discussions of why our bodies are rebelling against us. We are meant to trust that the good doctor fully understands the complexity of the situation, has it well within grasp, and knows what’s best for us. It’s a purposefully cutesy overlay for corporations who otherwise remain faceless, defanging the precision of the tactics by making the tip of the spear something that harkens back to a rosy simpler time.

Xifaxan’s spot is the most head-spinning yet. It’s essentially a medicine prescribed for irritable bowel syndrome. In it, a woman, dressed up and out on the town, has a sudden bout of indigestion, and it strikes at the worst possible moment—while sitting down to a meal at a fancy restaurant. The woman and her body are in conflict with each other—her body is recklessly noncompliant with her schedule and pleasure (this is how many of the spots tend to work, emphasizing inconvenience over symptoms and finding ways to depict this expressionistically). The disjunction of the woman’s whims and her body’s disobedience—and they are, pointedly, tacitly, dislodged as two separate entities—is immediately literalized. Zoom in, into the woman’s abdomen, and we enter a white void where a creature—an anthropomorphic intestinal tract—revoltingly named “Gut Guy”—stands, and, it becomes clear, his(?) abdominal region too is agitated with discomfort—suggesting an infinitely repeating bowel disruption going deeper and deeper. This pink, clay-like Mobius of balled intestinal tract has arms and legs and eyes and a mouth, and, it would seem, a functioning internal system of his own beneath the knotted folds that comprise its midsection. In my mind, I imagine this turtle-esque, vaguely parasitic creature has a garbled, viscous, flatulent voice akin to the typewriter in Naked Lunch, and indeed it resembles something that may hail from the addled and barren environs depicted in Cronenberg’s take on Burroughs’ hallucinatory opus—or from A Town Called Panic or Gumbasia, take your pick. It also reminds me, alarmingly enough, of the baby in Eraserhead.

He writes on a projector screen, undergoes an x-ray exposing his hollow insides and the medicine at work, peers in on a live-action fish tank, and sits down to dinner at an empty restaurant. He opens a menu and a veiled cut takes us back to the woman contentedly, beamingly ordering her meal—they have fused into a single, symbiotic one. The body horror that accompanies the procuring and taking of these pharmaceuticals is diffused in surrealism, humor, and psychedelia. The mysterious and unnerving internal happenings are turned to be non-threatening, even playful. Internal is made external, and in the transition, the blood, sinew, and goo is gone, and happy cartoon versions of the ailing organs take over. A strange disconnectivity takes hold, one where the organs have a life of their own. In this reality they are more plainly controllable because they are isolated and not part of a multidisciplinary and interdependent system. Xifaxan takes this as step farther. At least in the Myrbetriq bladder commercial, the relationship had a purpose, existed even—this woman has to live with her problematic bladder, she’s responsible for this monstrosity, and she is trying to reframe her relation to the organ as a positive one, where she is in control. Her bladder is like this pet that she carts around town. In the Xifaxan intestine commercial, this framework has come unglued—the intestine with eyes is free to roam and engage in innocuous activities of its own volition.

There’s a reason most all pharmaceutical commercials look alike and are structured the same—the template is so skillful and simple, so powerfully but unassumingly manipulative. It holds up to repetition. And it’s outright about it, making no bones about nor trying to conceal the shifts or reframe the template. That they are low-hanging fruit for parody is more testament to their viability than their weakness. Sound and simple techniques elicit predictable response formations—i.e., a tendency to zone out. Direct address to voice over is a powerful transition, it turns out, capable of opening and closing entry points in the brain. Can you ever really remember the side effects and government-mandated notes? Or do they all just blur together? And do you ever truly care to research the information? If they’ve taught us anything it’s that banking on human laziness and complacency is savvy. In the process, pharma marketers craft a scrubbed, sunny reality, an idyll of human contentedness and satisfaction, displaying benign, honey-dipped leisure in all its glory.

It used to be that drug ads could get by on these pleasantries and sly techniques alone, with happy couples and summery days standing in for the positive effects of the prescribed medications. Now, it seems, things have turned, and advertisers are looking for novel ways to stick in the brain, starting in the intangible with Abilify’s morphing depression and creeping toward fusing our anatomy with a cartoon facsimile. Pharmaceutical commercials are especially interesting studies for the tactics employed in advertising because the product is medicine, and medicine is abstract. It targets and effects internal change; it tinkers with an intricate and multifaceted system, and we trust it to do so with precision. What makes this exchange even more interesting is that, despite the intangible nature of the product, companies still necessarily have to stand out from one another. If this can’t be done through product comparison, it boils down simply to differences in advertising and branding. They’re manufacturing televisual double-takes in the age of rewind and YouTube, slyly cultivating word-of-mouth through bizarreness. They are in a process of redirecting direct advertising, making it so that it begins to resemble the entertainment and programming it surrounds. The commercials themselves have mini-arcs, characters to grow affections for, and concealed themes and motives to unearth. In a perversely ironic perpetuation of the loop, in short order, you’ll assuredly be able to gift your children with their very own plush anthropomorphic bowel.

 This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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