Shadow Journals: The Story of Medical Advertising (Part 3 of 3)

Today we have the third and final part of a guest post written by David Herzberg, Ph.D., who will present “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th-Century America” on Tuesday, October 22. Read part one here and part two here.

We don’t have a definitive history of medical advertising (dissertators, take note!). In fact, the world of medicine barely appears in the standard histories of advertising beyond 19th-century patent medicines. We know all about the key campaigns that transformed the wider advertising industry: Uneeda Biscuit and Oleo margarine in the Progressive Era, Wonder Bread and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, the Volkswagon Beetle in the 1960s, and so forth. The annals of medical advertising begin promisingly with a chapter on patent medicines but then basically peter out.

"The obvious anxieties that preoccupy many middle-aged minds often obscure a coexisting depression." From JAMA, volume 209, number 1 (September 22, 1969). Click to enlarge

“The obvious anxieties that preoccupy many middle-aged minds often obscure a coexisting depression.” From JAMA, volume 209, number 1 (September 22, 1969). Click to enlarge.

Obviously any such history would need to be based, in part, on the records of a medical advertising company or the in-house marketing arm of a pharmaceutical company. But they also require access to the advertisements themselves, in the context in which they appeared—i.e., among other places, in medical journals.

It’s not just historians of medical marketing who need the advertisements. Anyone interested in the history of medicine, or of medicine’s relationship to society at large, should care about them. The ads and the articles talked to each other, either through their joint acceptance of larger cultural beliefs or through vigorous debate when professional and profit-seeking agendas clashed. Advertisements also provide a bridge to connect such medical histories to broader developments, via the same links that contemporaries deplored. “They sell medicine like soap!” raged witnesses before Congress in the 1950s, believing that this was argument enough to win the day. This same observation, less polemically framed, might tell us as much about soap and the consumer culture as it does about medicine.

"In many cases the result of 'empty-nest snydrome.' From JAMA, volume 232, number 2 (April 14, 1975). Click to enlarge.

“In many cases the result of ’empty-nest syndrome.'” From JAMA, volume 232, number 2 (April 14, 1975). Click to enlarge.

This is why it was a historic mistake to cut out the ads. And it’s a mistake that we may still be making: today’s online databases offer a la carte articles without the surrounding advertisements, nearby articles, particular layouts, cartoons, etc. (Medical journals used to have cartoon pages; editorial policy apparently insisted that these mostly be nasty pokes at women patients. These pages, too, were often sliced out by well-meaning librarians.)

As I noted before, the New York Academy of Medicine was the only library I have found that did not cut out the advertisements. And even there policy changed for a while in the 1970s. I still don’t know why they had the prescience to spare the advertisements, but we are lucky that they did. It makes for a precious collection that is unlikely to be made obsolete in the digital era.

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