Side Effects Include
U.S. pharmaceutical advertisers face a difficult dilemma. Because of truth-in-advertising laws, any commercial giving indications for use of a prescription drug must give full disclosure of side effects.
This means that drug commercials come in the following three flavors:
- "Healthoxine. Because you're worth it." The "reminder" commercial alternates shots of flowered meadows, senior citizens, and doctors, all while saying generally positive things about nothing in particular and mentioning the name of the drug. This evades both mentioning the side effects and what the drug actually does. This type is far less common these days; most commercials that still do this are the ones that give you help down there, because, due to social mores, they can't directly name what their product does anyway. Some of these ads tried to skirt the issue by naming another drug indicated for the same thing. (In Canada, federal law prohibits drug ads from stating both the drug's name and its effect; thus, all Canadian pharma ads are of this type.)
- "Ask your doctor if Happypills are right for you." This kind of commercial, seen in some countries, actually does tell you what the pill is for, and then spends the rest of the spot breaking the bad news gently: "If you have seasonal allergies, Mxyzptlkacine may be right for you. Side effects of Mxyzptlkacine are uncommon, and include headache, nausea, vomiting, death, dizziness, Vaginal ejaculations, dysentery, cardiac arrhythmia, mild heart explosions, varicose veins, darkened stool, darkened soul, lycanthropy, trucanthropy, arteriosclerosis, hemorrhoids, diabeetus, virginity, mild discomfort, vampirism, gender impermanence, spontaneous dental hydroplosion, sugar high, more vomiting, brown, Your Mom, and mild rash." ...And yet, apparently even after all this, enough people still want to get the drug that the cost of advertising is justified.
- "Why live with the heartbreak of psoriasis?" A newer breed of commercial, the "help seeking" ad doesn't even mention the brand at all. Instead, it poses a public service announcement, explaining that symptoms might not be an inevitable part of growing old. It goes on to offer a pamphlet you can receive—or starting in the 2000s, a Web site you can visit—offering information on treatment options for a certain disease... "including a prescription treatment option." This one line is the real reason for the commercial; the pamphlet is an ad for the company's new drug, and the company wants you to read it since, in print, they're still allowed to hide the list of side effects in 8-point type. This kind of ad eventually becomes one for the drug in the pamphlet.
Of course, if the "help seeking" ad got you to actually talk with your doctor about your problems, then your doctor would already have told you if Stupidoxin was right for you. But pharmaceutical companies continue to heavily advertise because you might have been too embarrassed to mention the problem to your doctor until you realized there was a treatment for it. Or you might not have considered it to be a problem at all until you saw the commercial with all the other people who were horribly embarrassed by their yellow toenails/hairy knuckles/insufficiently-lustrous eyelashes/etc, and realized that you needed to get the cure. Or even worse, you might have told your doctor about your problem, but didn't request Stupidoxin by name, and so your doctor prescribed an equally-effective generic brand instead! (Somewhere an ad man is crying.)
- There is a commercial for a flea medication for dogs that actually has a list of side effects. By all means, we want Fido to be healthy, but a list of side effects on a commercial like that just feels odd.
- Some sleep medicines list as a side effect "drowsiness"... others list "insomnia". Think they got their bases covered there.
- Also watch out, as they might cause you to "drive while asleep, with amnesia for the event".
- It can also make cause lost weekends. And lost weeks.
- Antidepressants "may increase suicidal thoughts in teens".
- The immortal "Contact your doctor if you receive an erection lasting longer than 4 hours.":
- Several thousand comedians' response: "If I have an erection lasting longer than four hours, I'm contacting a hooker!"
- The song from the quotes page has, among other side effects, "Do not have sex while operating heavy machinery" and "In case of an erection lasting longer than 4 hours, insert your own joke here."
- One erectile-dysfunction tablet is warning against "delayed backache or muscle ache". Is this from the drug, or from the intended effect of the drug? "Doc, I have this pain in my back after the wife and I go for a face-to-face motorcycle ride, is it from the Erectrol?"
- From one extreme to the other: some medications for overactive bladder have constipation as a side effect.
- Recently browsing through causes of vomiting, and spotted one possible disease that ended its list of symptoms with "and the feeling of impending doom."
- One Benadryl commercial says "What will you miss when you have an allergy attack?" Probably the same thing you'll miss when you're sleeping off that Benadryl, as one of the side effects is extreme sleepiness. As an interesting note, all "PM" versions of medication, like Tylenol PM and Advil PM, contain Benadryl because of the sleepiness. It is a simple remedy for dogs who are terrified of thunderstorms: the poor dog is too drugged and sleepy to be scared.
- Midol, a medication for the alleviation of menstrual cramps and related symptoms, is marked "Not to be taken if you are taking medication for prostate cancer". Apparently it's useful for addressing other kinds of cramps, too, some of which men are able to get.
- Saw Palmetto is a herbal remedy for enlarged prostate. Apparently "it can interfere with the contraceptive pill".
- One example of the third are recent ads on American sports evens for "Is It Low T?", which doesn't even push a drug and puts the drug company's name in small print near the bottom. It's pretty clear from the ads (and made explicit on their website) that they're promoting their treatment for lowered testosterone in men. The Fridge Logic kicks in, though, when you realize that everything that would treat said condition would be either a steroid or a steroid precursor. And they're sponsoring sports (particularly baseball) that have had serious issues trying to stop steroid use.
- The weight-loss drug Xenical exemplifies the second type of commercial. Its side effects included "gas with oily discharge, increased bowel movements, an urgent need to have them, and an inability to control them." Xenical's over-the-counter version is called Alli, whose listed side-effects are deconstructed here.
- The asthma medication Advair lists as one of its side effects an increased risk of Asthma Related Deaths. This is because plenty of people use it too much, causing the body to be overreliant on these drugs.
- Many antipsychotics have sudden death listed as a side effect. It can be sudden cardiac death, or death from choking because that reflex is suppressed by the drug.
- The sleep aid Ambien lists "sleep-eating" as one of its side effects. Not listed, but known to have happened to at least one person each, are sleep-painting and sleep-sex.
- There is at least once case of someone claiming sleep-robbery as a side effect of Ambien. As in, he was claiming that he robbed a store. In his sleep. And he's a police officer.
- Speaking of sleep-sex, an Australian man got acquitted of rape because the defense claimed he had this condition.
- Sleep-sex is just annoying. Sleep-driving, on the other hand, is terrifying. No wrecks yet, but waking up in a strange place on the road is terrifying.
- Many birth control pills warn "Do not take if you may become pregnant." Well, most likely she's taking the pills because she's doing things that could cause pregnancy, but that's what the pills are for...
- A surprising number of drugs have both weight gain and weight loss listed as possible side-effects.
- A common topical antifungal medicine has, as a common side effect, dry, cracked skin. Doesn't sound too odd? The major symptom of the fungus it's supposed to treat is dry, cracked skin. This is the same reason why allergy medications almost always have allergy symptoms as a side-effect. It's a legal issue to prevent people suing if they're taking the medication for the wrong condition, so it doesn't help.
- Acutane to treat skin: The list of side-effects include blood-red vision; suicidal thoughts & tendencies; and worsening of acne. Acutane worsens acne at first, then it gets better. Supposedly, some of the suicidal thoughts come from the fact that your acne is worsening so you think it's incurable.
- Rheumatoid arthritis medications can potentially result in tuberculosis. RA medications are relatively strong immune system suppressants; the possibility of debilitating secondary infections go up just like it would if you'd developed AIDS. It goes away once you stop the drugs -- but then your RA would come back. Bummer.
- A recent asthma commercial mentioned that their product "may increase your risk of death." Death by what, they didn't say, but one assumes it could be everything from suffocation to explosive decompression, and they're just keeping their bases covered.
- Some adverts (also prevalent in print media) simply state: "Ask your doctor about _________'s story."
- Back in the '80s, when Rogaine was still a prescription drug, television commercials about it were pretty vague about what it did, except inasmuch as it pertained in some manner to an active lifestyle. Absent outside information, the most obvious conclusion to reach was that it had something to do with skiing. Calls to the toll-free number during this era required the the operator to mail the information. They couldn't give it out on the phone.
- Channel 4 got into a deserved bit of bother from Ofcom for advertising erectile dysfunction services before the Watershed. The adverts in question resembled a cross between a relaxation tape and a personal loan advert, and it was only the constant use of words like "erection" that marked them for what they were.
- Let's not forget Dulcolax, whose ads contain soothing guitar chords and pictures of...animated women caressing armchairs.
- Yasmin. Okay?
Anime and Manga
- A viral site for the Pixar movie WALL-E contains an ad for Xanadou, a medication to induce shopping euphoria. "Side effects may include unpleasant taste, headache, drowsiness and dizziness, headaches, intestinal discomfort and cramping, temporary blindness, bleeding of the gums. Failure to use Xanadou during shopping specific excursions may result in a desire to wear drab clothing, redistribute wealth and property and attend socialist summer camps."
- Zydrate from Repo! The Genetic Opera. Ask a gentern if Zydrate is right for you.
Side effects of Zydrate may include arrhythmia, faintness, moderate to severe amnesia, flushing of the face, dry mouth, blurry vision, visual distortions or white spots, nausea and vomiting, constipation, muscle twitches, confusion, euphoria, sedation, itchiness, and increased anxiety, Respiratory or cardiac arrest, coma, hypoventilation (inadequate ventilation), and possibly death.
- Pure Drivel by Steve Martin contains an essay entitled "Side Effects," which lists the side effects for a medication that relieves joint pain. The side effects start with joint pain and go on for about ten pages, including "May cause stigmata in Mexicans." "May cause compulsion to stand up in Catholic Mass and yell "I'm gonna whup ya wit' da ugly stick!"
- The drug Dylar in White Noise has a stated effect that's pretty weird in itself: eliminating the fear of death. However, its side effects are even stranger: causing the user to confuse words with the things they represent, resulting in hallucinations. And it doesn't work for its intended purpose anyway.
- The humorous song "Pillagers" contains an ad for Liquiflox, a fluid to help you take more pills. Its side effects include "an urge to buy a house from Ikea" and "death and reincarnation as a slug."
- The Amateur Transplants have a song advertising the fictional wonderdrug 'Paracetamoxyfrusebendroneomycin' (set to the tune of Supacalifrajalisticexpialodocius) which, though capable of curing almost every known disease (as well as 'reversing impotence' and making you 'good at fighting') has a number of side effects including 'nausea, vomiting and losing all your hair...heart attacks, becoming gay and growing extra breasts'. The song also notes that none of the animals the drug was tested on survived, but it's alright because they lied in the research paper.
- The Coup's song "Ass-Breath Killers" is an advert for an anti-asskissing pill.
"The makers of Dr. Misoi's Ass-Breath Killers are not responsible for corporate losses or topplings of local governments and/or regimes"
- The Austin Lounge Lizards lampoon these in their song and cartoon "The Drugs I Need" about a made-up drug called "Progenitorivox", whose side effects include (in song): "Agitation, Palpitations, excessive salivation, constipation, male lactation, rust-colored urination..."
- On their album Modern (Im)Maturity, folk-comedy group Modern Man has a song called "Side Effects" which is entirely this trope.
- Bloom County had a Sunday comic about the incredible dangers of snorting dandelions, which included spontaneous decapitation and turning into Woody Allen. In the last panel, Steve Dallas snorts it anyway.
- In Opus, the titular penguin takes a medication whose side effects include lactation, so he then gets a medication that prevents that side effect, but then needs one to prevent its side effect, until he has a chain of medications. In the last panel, someone points out that, of course, penguins don't have nipples.
- Jeff Foxworthy chimes in: "'For itchy, watery eyes, it's Floraflor. Side effects may include: nausea, vomiting, water weight gain, lower back pain, receding hairline, eczema, seborrhea, psoriasis, itchy chafing clothing, liver spots, blood clots, ringworm, excessive body odor, uneven tire wear, pyorrhea, gonorrhea, diarrhea, halitosis, scoliosis, loss of bladder control, hammertoe, the shanks, low sperm count, warped floors, cluttered drawers, hunchback, heart attack, low resale value on your home, feline leukemia, athlete's foot, head lice, club foot, MS, MD, VD, fleas, anxiety, sleeplessness, drowsiness, poor gas mileage, tooth decay, split ends, parvo, warts, unibrow, lazy eye, fruit flies, chest pains, clogged drains, hemorrhoids, dry heaving, and sexual dysfunction.' I'm thinking I'll just stick with itchy, watery eyes."
- Robin Williams' routine for Fuckitol: "Fuckitol... for those times when you don't want to give a damn..." (Not to be confused with Fucitol.) He also talked about side effects, and how one list included "may cause anal leakage."
"That's not a side effect, that is an effect. It's like, "How you doin', Bob?" - "Oh, just a bit of anal leakage." - "Bob, you wanna get out of the pool right now?"
- Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines features a cigarette warning with side effects including "jock itch", "alien invasion" and "the death of cute little puppies".
Television -- Live-Action
- The side-effects list was used in Becker as the main reason a split-personality patient didn't take his drugs - the "nice" personality was deathly afraid of the side effects.
Becker: It also says it causes irregular periods - are you afraid of that too?
Jim: Now I am!
- Jon Stewart mentioned one drug for restless leg syndrome with the side effect of "increased gambling". He argued that if he had a gambling addiction, he'd take a drug that gave him the "jimmie-legs", rather than the other way around.
- All the nasal decongestants that cause nosebleeds. Mucus or blood, the choice is yours! Well, as we all know, it's a very good way to balance out your humours.
- Mad TV did a skit parodying this, not by concocting a ridiculous list of side effects, but by advertising the party drug MDMA (Ecstacy) as a Zoloft-like antidepressant. (It'll give you the serotonin boost you're looking for, but will also turn you into Dopamine Boy/Girl.)
- Saturday Night Live:
- Had a parody ad, this time for birth control. The voiceover is totally standard, but the video shows Amy Poehler repeatedly seducing men, women, and groups into her apartment, up to an entire wheelchair basketball team.
- Another skit parodied the usual commercial side effects announced when taking these drugs. It stated that among the side effects would include hallucinations, in which it then described EXACTLY what type of hallucinations you would have: a horrifying surrealist nightmare ending in a choice between two doors. The wrong door leads to hellish misery, but the right one to eternal joy... and a moist, itch-free scalp. And maybe mild flatulence.
- Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report has a regular segment entitled "Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A." (a reference to his honorary doctorate of fine arts), sponsored by the fictional Prescott Pharmaceuticals, in which he constantly pushes drugs in the "Vaxadrin" family. The drugs have such side effects as minor heart explosions, vivid dreams of self-cannibalization, growing teeth ("often in the mouth"), spontaneous pregnancy, increased chances of vampire attack, involuntary Narnia adventures, and tracheal meerkat colonies.
- In Warcraft 3, clicking repeatedly on the Priest unit (the human side's healer) eventually results in him issuing the following disclaimer: "Side effects may include: Dry mouth, Nausea, Water retention, Painful rectal itch, Hallucinations, Psychosis, Coma, Death, and Halitosis. Magic is not for everyone, consult your doctor before use."
- This episode of The Non-Adventures of Wonderella, in the fifth panel.
- Head Trip presents a warning that runs across four more and more distressed Beat Panels.
- Parodied in this "The Karnak Hates Everything Show" strip with Monoxyploxium. It doesn't tell you what it does at first ("Recently we decided that's none of your damn business"), only that you should buy it now because "You may very well be suffering from up to six medical crises of which you know absolutely nothing." Though apparently it keeps your lymph nodes from exploding and spraying relatives with fluids.
- Penny Arcade
- Parodied in this strip.
- Followed-up here, with the success of the treatment being described in typical nerdy fashion.
- Also this one: "...not recommended for adults, or children interested in becoming adults."
- Havidol is a comic parody of the whole concept. It was created to demonstrate some of the problems with aggressive pharmaceutical advertising campaigns.
- "Panexa. Ask your doctor for a reason to take it." A hilarious parody of this sort of ads, complete with an enormous number of Happy Fun Ball-like disclaimers and warnings.
- Unusually for a parody of this trope, Eternazec's side effects are logically tied to the primary effect. Oh, except for itchy armpits. However, it's an ad for E*Trade, spoofing the whole thing by showing the usual meadow shots during the listing, that uses perhaps the all-time champion list of preposterous side effects: "Nozulla may cause the following symptoms: itchy rashes, full body hair loss, projectile vomiting, gigantic eyeball, the condition known as 'hot dog fingers,' children born with the head of a golden retriever, seeing the dead, bone liquification, possession by the Prince of Darkness, tail growth, elderly pregnancy, back pain...."
- A joke ad on J.K. Rowling's website includes the following fine print: "Healer's warning: side-effects include dizziness, vomiting, and tusks."
- Foamy the squirrel quips about this - "Side effects may cause hallucinations. I'd rather have the runny nose! Fine! I may have some snot on my upper lip, but at least I'm not seeing Elvis in my refrigerator! Dammit!" Also, he has a friend Pilz-E who rambled off a list of side-effects of all the medication he takes. He finishes off with death, but says "but I have a pill, to cure the death."
- In a particularly amusing Avatar Abridged episode, Haru advertises a shampoo called Sexyfine that rearranges a person's DNA and turns them, well, sexyfine. Side effects included headaches, blood clots, green rashes, gonorrhea, albinism, thumb cancer, chocolate cravings, heroin addiction, pregnancy, ear mutation, increased risk of cyborg koala attack, the apocalypse, and Zutara.
- Side Effects May Include Anything by Scott Alexander explains how bad it is even when there are some derived numbers thrown in.
[…] a patient who worries that Xolair might be causing their depression will Google “can xolair cause depression?”, and she will end up on this site that says “major depression is found among people who take Xolair”, which is one of the worst examples of weasel words I’ve ever heard. Then she will read that there are entire support groups for depressed Xolair sufferers. She will find all sorts of scary-looking information like that Xolair-related depression has been increasing since 2008. And this is above and beyond just the implications of somebody bothering to write an entire report about the Xolair-depression connection!
In case you haven’t guessed the twist – no one’s ever investigated whether Xolair causes depression.
- A short arc in the The Boondocks comic strip concerns Granddad's attempts to figure out what the hell a drug commercial means when it says that its product will help you get "Back in the game". When Huey finally tells him, he gets sent to his room.
- American Dad: Do you sometimes feel irritable, restless, uneasy, sad, normal, or just plain not high? Maybe it's time to try crack!
(Crack may cause shivers, night terrors, gay for pay, heart palpitations, homicidal paranoia, or the sensation that you're on fire. Peeing blood and seeing your friends' faces as talking skeletons are possible side effects of crack. People who use crack may experience 5-7 years in prison where brutal raping may occur. If you experience one or more of these side effects, consult your dealer. You may need more crack.)
- Teen Titans had a parody of a magical drug, Zinthos, during a Trapped in TV Land episode. Raven usually intones "Azarath, Metrion, Zinthos" when using her powers, the commercial advertised Zinthos as from the makers of Azarath and Metrion. Some of the effects of this drug mirror her changes when she loses control of her powers: Multiple eyes, disturbing visions, fits of rage (though not bloating, cramping or loss of hair, thankfully). It also says not to get Zinthos wet, or feed it after midnight, a Shout-Out to the Gremlins movies.
Side effects of this All The Tropes entry may include Ruining your life, Author Appeal, Gorn, Brontophobia, Brontosaurophobia, and Involuntary Shapeshifting. This All The Tropes entry is not for children under 12, women who are nursing or pregnant, are about to become pregnant, have been pregnant before, are trying to become pregnant while reading this entry, pregnant nurses or people with gall bladders. Prolonged use may result in over-extending humourous situations to the point where they are no longer amusing or the ensuing of hilarity.