At one time, a discreet brass plate outside the front door was the
closest you could get to selling your wares as a doctor. These days,
neon-lit signs with ’Feeling ill? See Dr Croak right now! Best rates in
No disease too trivial. Guaranteed no groping, no removal of kidneys
without prior permission and no unsolicited advice on making out your
will. A member of the BMA’ are still considered unprofessional - but
But selling medicine as distinct from medics is a different matter and
it’s big business. As a general practitioner and medical journalist, my
special interest is getting health messages across to people, not least
on how to look after themselves and use the NHS to their greatest
advantage when they really need it. Some ads help but others make me
reach for my Laudanum.
From 1948, the NHS successfully conditioned British people into the
false sense of security that it would always be there when they became
This mentality drives the TV advertising for PPP. A shadow follows each
person until they fall backwards for various reasons, only to be caught
by Big, if monochrome, Brother. ’Yes son, we are all going to die but
sip this, it will help you sleep.’ Bupa projects itself quite
’Sign up with us and become immortal.’ To drive the point home, its
upbeat television ad shows an incredible woman sprinting up to a cliff
edge - but not falling off and certainly not backwards. They want her to
stay that way, you see. This has all the placebo effect of pink
medicine. It has to be said, you feel better just looking at it.
Getting people to cut down on their drug dependence is nothing new. For
years in Northern Ireland a Department of Health cartoon character,
modelled on a popular local drag artist, popped her scarf-swathed head
into the surgery and asked: ’Doctor, doctor. Can I have a prescription?’
Paradoxically, the stereotypical representation of a Belfast cleaning
woman demanding a prescription did not seem to offend the Northern
Ireland public and my patients, with typical Irish irony, would
routinely parody the advert.
Pharmacists followed this up with an ad showing a groaning shelf of
talking medicine bottles collapsing under the strain of yet another
’Ask your pharmacist for advice’ came the helpful punchline.
In the same way Hoover has become synonymous with vacuum cleaners, some
medical products are known by their brand names. People talk of needing
an Elastoplast and not an occlusive dressing - which is no big
Ads for Elastoplast barely used the name because they didn’t need
Instead they assumed you knew what the pink, sticky fabric thing was and
simply said, ’There, there.’ You filled in the gaps.
The plaster as a universal sign of injury was used in an Easter campaign
designed to cut down on the number of night visits performed by GPs. A
cost-conscious government was becoming alarmed at the spiralling demand
for out-of-hours calls from family doctors, while GPs were increasingly
seeking early retirement. An ad from the Doctor Patient Partnership,
which featured an Easter bunny wearing a plaster and entreating patients
to ’Be nice. Think twice before lifting the phone’, prompted one
well-known GP representative to exclaim: ’Think twice? Most of my
patients don’t even think once.’ This genteel approach soon gave way to
a more brutally honest Department of Health pointing finger, where an
unnecessary call for a doctor caused a child to die from meningitis.
Night visit requests are now on the decline for the first time in some
parts of the country.
In response to criticism for being too soft and vague, the DPP recently
launched its ’heart attack’ campaign in the London Underground and at
football grounds. These posters and credit-card ads targeting men left
little room for doubt. Over a vivid picture of the Grim Reaper is the
headline, ’Heart attack: know the symptoms.’ The ad then lists them and
advises a swift 999 call if they
persist. ’Surely to God they don’t need to be told!’ one senior BBC
health programme producer exclaimed but then added sadly, ’Well yes,
they probably do.’Unfortunately, she is quite correct. Men classically
delay making that vital phonecall, putting their symptoms down to
indigestion, wind or dislike for the opposing team’s supporters.
Finally, I must declare an interest as a member of the Consumer Health
Information Centre but our ’Ebeneezer Sneezer’ campaign came up with a
genuine ’S-Me’ (’Swipe me. I never knew that!’) fact. Cold and flu
viruses are passed on by handshakes. More bad news for Freemasons. Dr
Ian Banks, a practising GP, is also a broadcaster and writer, and author
of The NHS Home Healthcare Guide.