“But Rosemarie, you are an economist. You should not be surprised if a business is going to try to increase the profit they make!” My co-author laughed as he commented on my surprise at an advertisement I recently saw in Time magazine. We had a good laugh as we noted that since we generally do research together on some aspect of the nonprofit sector, I have come to almost expect altruism from the world around me. No, I should not be surprised that a business would want to increase its profits, but I was disturbed that they tried to (slightly) hide this motivation under an advertisement that was labeled as a “public service announcement,” which was not apparent until one looked a little more closely. Called “Keep Momming” it is produced by the company Shire, the company that produces the ADHD medicine Adderall. However, this is not clear from its name alone.
My interest in ADHD began when my daughter was very young and began to exhibit behavior that we later learned was due to an undiagnosed learning difference. Her school at the time responded by suggesting that she be tested for ADHD, and one teacher, while being careful to stay on the correct side of the law, told me that “the medicines really work” as she instructed me about ways to interact with my pediatrician so as to be able to have my daughter diagnosed, and, presumably, medicated. Thankfully, our pediatrician was smarter than the teacher, and strongly advised us to find a new school. As we switched schools, I learned of non-medical approaches, including speech therapy, which proved to be the answer for helping her. Today, my daughter attends a well-respected school near us, where she excels in sports. Despite continued difficulty with standardized tests, she does well academically, and regularly makes the honor roll.
As I navigated the world of special education, IEPs and 504 plans, I met other mothers struggling with similar issues. Some, like me, refused to medicate otherwise healthy children, while some followed their doctors’ suggestions and did allow their children to be prescribed drugs. This sometimes led to solutions for their children, and sometimes led to horrible results. One mother told me her nine year old who began to talk about wanting to die after beginning treatment on a medicine. It was soon stopped.
The advertisement was part of what is called a “public service announcement” by an actress named Holly Robbinson Peete, who appeared on the shows “21 Jump Street” and “The Talk.” Like me, she responded to her own daughter’s difficulties in school by searching for an answer, and for her that answer was that her daughter had an inattentive form of ADHD. Just as I respect women who choose to parent full time, as I hope that they also respect my decision to financially parent, I respect the decisions that this actress made in seeking help for her daughter. However, some things about the ad disturb me.
The most important thing that disturbs me about this “public service announcement” is that it is really a thinly veiled ad for several drug companies that produce medicine for ADHD, as can be seen by the endorsements at the bottom, most of which are directly or indirectly connected to pharmaceutical companies. Indeed, a visit to “keepmomming.com” makes it clear that it is produced by Shire Pharmaceuticals. Further, a search of “Mom Central and Shire Pharmaceuticals and Holly Robinson Peete” leads one to a list of “mom” bloggers who have re-posted her message, prefixed with a note saying that they received compensation for doing so. Is this really a “public service announcement?”
The second thing that disturbs me is that the actress and her daughter are African American. Data from the Center for Disease Control show statistically significant relationships between diagnosis and treatment for ADHD and socio-economic characteristics, such as race. Dark memories of the Tuskegee eexperiments of the last century come to mind, and make me all the more uncomfortable.
In Economics, we say that one role of advertising is to inform the public of the availability of new products. Further, we are all used to seeing advertisements from pharmaceutical companies on TV and in print, complete with a list of side effects caused by the medicines presented. So why does this “public service announcement” strike me as crossing the line? Perhaps it is because it is not clearly presented as the ad it is. Does it bother anyone else?
And don’t worry; no large pharmaceutical company gave me anything for posting my thoughts here.