Advertising Diabetes

If there are two things in this world that I am way too familiar with, they’re diabetes and advertising. For me, they’re both full-time jobs, they’re both more complicated than they should be, and they both have the potential to drive a person crazy. Especially when they come together.

I’ve had this post stewing in my head for the last several weeks, but I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to say. Then last night, the new One Touch Ultra Blue commercial violated the dinnertime tranquility of my living room, and I knew I could remain silent no longer.

Have you seen this commercial? It opens with an older guy sitting on a couch in his home. He looks earnestly at the camera and says, “When you have diabetes, you’re never really sure what’s happening inside your body.”

I can’t say for sure what comes after that. If I recall, it’s some nonsense about how One Touch Ultra Blue test strips are here to save the day, because they’ve got some imaginary “DoubleSure” technology that always lets you know exactly what your blood sugar is.

After seven years at an advertising agency, 32 years of life and three seasons of Mad Men, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that advertising is all about selling a false dream. A lie, if you’re feeling particularly cynical. And it’s one thing if what companies are promising me is longer looking eyelashes, or a trash bag that will keep my kitchen from smelling like day-old cauliflower, or a phone that will make me awesome. We tend to take these messages with a proverbial grain of salt, even if they do ultimately affect our purchasing decisions.

When it comes to selling me on diabetes supplies, though, things get weird. For instance, the good folks at Johnson & Johnson must be huffing control solution if they think I’ll believe that their test strips are going to consistently tell me exactly what my blood sugar level is. The significant discrepancies in glucose meter accuracy is a topic that Kerri at Six Until Me delved into several months ago, as did Kelly at Diabetesaliciousness and Scott Strumello on his blog. As each of them so articulately pointed out, 20% to 30% is an unforgivable margin of error when you’re relying on test results to plan your meals, your insulin dosage, and ultimately your day-to-day life.

Now, instead of investing in improved accuracy in their test strips and meters, One Touch brings us their new blue test strips and an illusive advertising campaign to push their popularity. I can remember the first vial of blue test strips I cracked open. “Look at this,” I griped as I showed my husband a strip. “They have to print the brand name on it, just in case I forget what kind to buy. It’s like a teeny tiny commercial that I get to look at 6 times a day.”

My cynicism isn’t limited to One Touch Ultra Blue commercials, though. The way diabetes — and the accessories that go with it — appear in advertisements can usually get my goat. Like the fact that every ad you’ll ever see for a blood glucose meter will show 104 or 106 as a test result. If I ever saw an ad that showed a meter number of 313, I’d probably run out and buy said meter out of sheer appreciation for the manufacturer’s honesty.

Then there’s the Freestyle ad that shows a woman painting in a field — with a poor man’s 10,000 Maniacs playing in the background — while she talks about how her meter makes diabetes control so simple. Even my box of CGM sensors is adorned with a photograph of a beautiful woman on a beautiful couch, about to dig into a beautifully massive slice of cake. If this perfect diabetes world exists, I’d love to go there. Unfortunately, we all know it doesn’t.

I guess the underlying bummer here is that diabetes isn’t just a disease — it’s an industry. And that industry is why I have little faith in a forthcoming cure. It’s why Novo Nordisk pulled out of Greece for several weeks this summer. It’s why meters are free and test strips cost a dollar each. It’s why whackos publish books that promise heaven-sent cures for diabetes, as long as you pray hard enough.

I fully understand that insulin pumps don’t grow on trees, and that a certain level of commercialism is necessary to keep the innovations coming. I just wish that Abbot and LifeScan and Medtronic and the gang would understand this: invest what you need to to make your products work as well as they can, and they’ll sell themselves — no advertising necessary.

14 comments on “Advertising Diabetes

  1. Karen says:

    I’ll second your gripe. If they spent even half their advertising budget on making their products better, they’d have a much more devoted following. As it is, yesterday I got BGs of 78 and 170 roughly a minute apart with the fabulous DoubleSure technology.

    Don’t even get me started on the depictions of BGs on packaging – it’s a sad day when you do a little dance of excitement when the number’s in the 130s!

  2. Sherry says:

    Bravo! I am right there with you. I hate that diabetes management is such BIG business. And like you, the fact that it is makes me doubtful of a cure.

  3. shiv says:

    Very well said!

  4. Suzanne says:

    Wow, well said!! It’s so very true!! I like to sit on pretty couches and eat big slices of cake, too… but the ads never seem to have that annoying beeping and buzzing, the pounding headache or the 423 that always seems to follow!!

  5. Caroline says:

    Love the point about the 103 / 104 readouts on pictures of meters. That would be priceless to see anything over 300 =)I kind of want to mock one up now, with a woman holding it and thrusting it proudly forward. And I appreciate the Wilford Brimley picture. Only he pronounced it diabetus…what’s up with that?

  6. Kaitake says:

    Hear hear! Advertising in any health industry is just repugnant. We don’t have TV ads for test strips here in New Zealand, but ads for other medicines still worry me. Isn’t the doctor supposed to prescribe this stuff? Not the patient “request” a prescription? (I know that’s not practical to diabetes sometimes, but wasn’t that the initial idea behind prescriptions?)

  7. Too true. It hasn’t happened lately but I used to have family/friends ask me about things they heard on commercials that were a little insane. Also, why do all the people on diabetes commercials have to be old? We’re not old!

  8. Joanne says:

    Well said… I had the same thoughts upon seeing most of these commercials. I’d love to ask One Touch how their blue strips can give a reading of 409 and 235 only seconds apart… quite a big difference when it comes to deciding how much extra insulin to give my daughter.

    And don’t even get me started on Er5… I once had 4 in a row from the same bottle.

    Get to work on making your products accurate and stop treating us like we’re a herd of moronic sheep.

    (I seem to be a bit cranky today… sorry)

  9. I just did a similar post on advertising…but my complaints are the “cures”. Sometimes you just have to say “calgon take me away”…wait, that was from a commercial. Eh, you know what I mean.

  10. Olivejooice says:

    Well said!! I completely agree…and as for “double sure” technology or whatever… a couple of days ago I got a 214mg/dL and a 52 seconds later. Clean, dry hands too! ARGH.

  11. Liah says:

    I thought I was the only one annoyed by those 104 readings on meter packages. I mean, how realistic is a reading that low post meal?

    I just started reading your blog and I like your sense of humor regarding having this disease. Comforts me a bit.

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