December 3, 2008

Marketing Prescription Drugs, American-Style

by Camila Perez Gabilondo

Advertisement is different in every country and a powerful force in today's society. A particular type of advertisement struck me the most after moving to the U.S. and consuming American television, newspapers and magazines. In my mind, medicine was never before trying to break its way into the consumer's mind in such an aggressive way, but in this country, prescription medicine is sold to us every day through the media as if it were a new kind of soda or a tasteful snack.

The array of prescription drugs with dangerous side effects that we are urged to consume day by day when getting our news or watching our favorite show is abundant and diverse. From sleeping pills and birth control to cervical cancer immunization, medical treatments which must be recommended and prescribed by a doctor are directly advertised to the consumer, as if we could make such decisions on our own.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs is very common in the U.S. and audiences are therefore accustomed to making important decisions about their health on their own, which some argue leads to an abuse of prescriptions drugs and a preference for expensive treatments, which, of course, benefits drug companies. Drugs are advertised as if they were as soft a remedy as Vic's vapor rub when they are indeed medical treatments that should not be administered without the control of a doctor.

The dangerous risks of these drugs have to be mentioned in advertisements, but this is done in a way that barely leaves an impression on the consumer: the possibility of suffering from such conditions as blood clots and heart attacks is briefly narrated at the end of the commercial in a light-hearted way. However, for a viewer who is not used to this, such as me, the side effects are what resonates the most and what deters me from paying attention to the product.

This leads us to wonder whether the American audience is subject to danger from the media. The success of these products shows that perhaps the audience is too gullible. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates these kinds of commercials, but it may not be enough. In a January 2003 survey report, the FDA estimated that 88 percent of patients who ask their doctors for a prescription drug by brand name don't actually have the symptoms that the drug treats. With more and more products out on the market and more money invested by drug companies in commercials, this number could go down. Therefore, the far-reaching power of advertisement should be controlled when it comes to such a serious matter as the consumer's health.

(Photo by Adamos Maximus of Mesa, AZ via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a satire from Saturday Night Live about such ads, especially those dealing with birth control, please check the video below.)

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December 2, 2008

Are Girl Talk's Sonic Mash-ups Illegal Music?

by Ali Golomb

One could ask, if the artist did not compose the lyrics or the beat, then how could it be considered their song? Girl Talk, the stage name for Gregg Gillis, makes this question a great deal more complicated to answer. Now on his third album, Night Ripper (originally released in 2006), Girl Talk compiles tracks on top of each other to create a new song. Pitchfork, an online music review site, talks about Girl Talk's way of trying to guess which song is next:
"Smash Your Head" glides into the siren keyboards of Lil Wayne's "Fireman" less than a minute in, then abruptly shifts into the crushingly dense riffs of Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice" while Young Jeezy spits the familiar flames of "Soul Survivor," before it all tumbles into a Pharcyde-Elton John-Biggie somersault.

Many people think this is an illegal form of art, but I believe otherwise. Yes, Girl Talk is taking parts of songs from other artists, but he is engineering them in a specific way that is different from the artist's original intent. With the digital age, this is our generation's genre of music. It is still every bit as creative and innovative as the music of past generations, but its innovation lies with reconfiguring of past works rather than composing completely new lyrics or beats. While many artists' songs take inspiration from other artists; Girl Talk's inspiration is just more apparent.

(The photo of Gregg Gillis/Girl Talk is from the Wired Rave Awards in San Francisco in 2007; the photo is by matthew.hickey via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a mash-up video inspired by Girl Talk's "Overtime," please check below.)

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December 1, 2008

Milk Quenches Thirst for Social Commentary

by Jordan Coughenour

An epic portrayal of the man who first embodied the word "hope," Director Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk, following the late Castro Street politician who became the first openly gay man ever elected to public office, is easily one of the most socially important and impactful films to arise out of Hollywood studios in recent years, and an undeniable contender for multiple Oscar nominations this season. Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) seems to have finally learned the essential skill of relinquishing complete control as a director, leading several of Milk's actors to execute masterfully unhindered performances, resulting in an engaging character study framed by the suddenly newly relevant gay civil rights movement in late 1970's San Francisco.

Milk's release date (although the film debuted in San Francisco on Oct. 28, before the fall elections, it did not go into limited national release until Nov. 26) tragically prevented the film from affecting the recent passing of California's Proposition 8. (For more on Prop. 8 please see: "California's Proposition 8 TV Ads" and "Proposition 8: Where's the Outrage?") That ballot initiative banned gay marriage in California. Moving in parallel, much of the movie deals with Harvey Milk's organization of protests against 1977's Proposition 6 in California, which would have fired homosexuals from teaching in the public school system. The film is one of the most effective framings of a social movement ever crafted; with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black working in an artful balance between historical fact, yet leaving spacious breathing room for the audience to follow the personal struggles of those involved in the gay civil rights battle of the time. One of the strongest of these decisions comes with Van Sant's frequent use of vintage newsreel footage and photographs to overlap the staged action; notably choosing not to cast an actor as the religious anti-homosexual warrior Anita Bryant, but rather to confine her presence to actual television interviews, leaving apt room for the film's central cast members to play.

Frequently falling victim to bloated speeches and weepy plot lines, Sean Penn (All the King's Men, Mystic River) is at his strongest point in years as politician Milk. Penn delivers a vocally and physically nuanced performance worthy of serious Academy Award consideration. He joyfully captures the hope and fervor of Milk, acting without fear or imposition in his portrayal. Penn's finest moments are the quiet pauses between the rallies and addresses; where he shows Milk's constant battle between his love of operatic theatricality and inward soul searching in an oppressive world. Neither Penn nor Van Sant ever shies away from the uniquely sexual lifestyle of Milk and those around him. From the first moments, as the film begins on the eve of Milk's 40th birthday and primary encounter of lifelong love, Scott Smith, viewers can expect to be invaded by a barrage of sensual portrayals, none lacking in psychological connotation or amorous necessity. These men who revolved around Harvey throughout his life make for a notable supporting cast to Penn throughout the film. James Franco as Scott Smith shows fluidity and able passion in a performance as Milk's sensual yet wary boyfriend, acting as something of a guardian angel throughout the course of the movie. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer) is a peppy and energetic presence as the young activist Cleve Jones, who in the years after Milk's timeline concludes, went on to create the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Hirsch is completely unhinged and nearly lunatic in his portrayal. In many of the movie's darker moments, Hirsch is a continuous shock of lightning, pertaining well to one of the actual Milk's frequent calls to, "Never blend in." One of Milk's more notable strengths lies in Josh Brolin (W., No Country For Old Men). Brolin plays City Supervisor Dan White, the eventual assassin of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. In making the wise decision to not leave White to the sidelines as a shadowy harbinger of death, Van Sant grants the audience a delicate view into the gradual formation of a bigot. Brolin's carefully constructed progression as a character should reap some possible benefits for Brolin come Oscar nomination time too. Though the basic subject matter of the film itself demands a liberal viewpoint, Van Sant uses White's arc to give the other side of the issue its due course of argumentation. It's nearly as much of a shock to a truly engaged audience member as it is to Milk himself when White does eventually pull a trigger on Moscone, igniting one of the country's most heart wrenching double homicides.

Given Harvey Milk's constant search for a stage and enough theatricality to keep the world enraptured, it's of considerable notation that Milk's core manages to be so subtle and pure. Past the grand narrative of a social movement, lies the heart of both the issue itself, as well as the basic grappling with humanity that ensures no matter what legal jurisdiction ensues, all men are still created equal. It's the intimate moments, such as when Milk and Smith enjoy a candlelight dinner with the pressure of political duty pervading the air, or when the previously aimless wanderer, Jones is handed his first bullhorn and enlisted to active duty just prior to Milk's death, ringing true to his signature speech-starter "My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you." You'll have a hard time walking out of the theatre without the need to pick up a picket sign and head into the streets yourself. Milk is, overall, a powerful testament that though over three decades have passed, the continuous struggle for equality continues in the gay community to this day.

(Editor's Note: This piece is also cross-posted on the iVoryTowerz blog.)

(Milk goes into full nationwide release in the U.S. on Dec. 5. The film is rated R. The promotional film poster is from Focus Features. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)

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November 28, 2008

Computers, the Internet & Desensitization

by Althea Avice de Guzman

He smiles slightly, that person across the street from you. He is holding a sign that says: I am going to kill myself. There is a crowd watching him take the pills from his pockets. Now, there is a general murmuring as he puts the pills in his mouth. Still no one moves. Some scream for him to stop, others are trying to call his bluff by encouraging him. Most just watch.

His body topples to the ground and twelve hours later, the police finally come. But it's too late. Countless witnesses were unable to stop a young man from committing suicide.

Your first reaction: Outrage; maybe incredulity that no one was willing to stop him.

It did not exactly happen this way, but the death of Abraham Biggs, Jr. only differed in that instead of looking across the street, people were looking at a computer screen while he committed suicide live on webcam. And people responded to his action just the same.

In psychology, there is such a thing as the bystander effect, where people diffuse responsibility away from themselves and unto others when they are in groups. One would think that the more people there are, the greater the chance of him being saved, but it seems the contrary is true. However, I hesitate to give people even that degree of credit and this leads me to ask whether or not being online has desensitized us to such acts.

In addition to diffusing responsibility to others, there is also the lack of accountability from being behind a computer screen. What is the difference between the virtual world and that of the real one? For example, you suddenly have more courage to talk to a person online that you would not have in person. That way, you are not confronted with social pressures or expectations and also there is an aspect of detachment that comes with it. It is an alternate social reality. Repeating this situation over and over again may encourage one to prefer interaction through the internet, in other words, taking the easy way out.

Therefore, does overexposure to the internet foster the loss of empathy and thus desensitize us? To some extent, I must admit I gave up some of my humanity while trying to be more aware. After reading countless headlines about tragedy and disaster, suddenly, the shock of something so terrible happening wore off. Not only was I reading them online, I was seeing them too, on YouTube. And the worst part of being aware? I couldn't relate.

Also, admittedly, a bit of my morality has been compromised. While my conscience would hesitate to steal a CD from the store, online, I never had a problem using Napster in its existence. The existence of those file-sharing sites and their widely-accepted use by all my peers led me to believe that the virtual music store was not like the real store at all. Now the guilt from downloading a song has subsided, and who knows what else my conscience will allow me to do online but not in real life.

At the end of the day, as soon as you walk into my room and sign online, you are no longer a part of the real world. That computer screen protects you from the consequences of reality, and maybe even from the guilt of watching someone die right in front of your eyes.

(Photo collage by kuddlyteddybear2004 of Ashtabula, OH via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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November 26, 2008

A Conscious Consumer: An Oxymoron?

by Melissa the Marinade Maker

From a tender age, we all have been told we are unique; we are individuals possessing special characteristics and skills not common to others in society. Although many refuse to define themselves as based upon consumer products, it is extremely difficult to enact a complete separation between products and who an individual "is." The blatant question is this: Is the individual simply a product? Many would argue no, as any human being with even a moderately functioning brain is able to distinguish themselves from the products they consume for the sake of daily life, yet others assert that society is very uncritical and lacks the proper analytical skills to create such a separation between the being and the product.

The media have employed techniques, efficacious techniques, that have created a "consumer frenzy" in every possible venue of life. Newspapers, magazines, the radio, and lo and behold, television itself, have all been extremely effective and extremely profitable modes of consumer-mania. Debate has raged about the quantity of advertisements each individual is exposed to on a daily basis, some claim roughly 1,500, while others claim figures in the hundreds. The actual figure is irrelevant in that the bottom line remains that commercials have invaded every crevice of life, with commercials assertively advocating products ranging from savory, delectable chocolate to shampoo that renders impassioned screams in the shower. It is unarguable that the very function of a corporation is to generate revenue, utilizing the means necessary to ensure a sustainable market demographic. However, what is bothersome is that the individual is unable to venture for themselves and find a suitable product without it being portrayed as an absolute "must-have." The psychological implications of such advertising are ostensible: consumers passively expect to have everything presented to them, as opposed to being an informed and pro-active consumer. Rather than unconsciously absorbing all the advertisements being propelled, the consumer ought to make purchase decisions based upon individual discretion, as opposed to simply what the commercials tell them. Thus, the lack of personal opinion has resulted in commercials hindering a conscientious consumer.

Historically, commercials have played a vital role in the U.S. consumer market. The early to mid-20th century consisted of commercials that revolved around the suburban lifestyle, catered specifically for women to purchase the newest, most desirable kitchen and cleaning appliances. With the onset of the 1980s, commercials reached a newfound peak and horizontally diffused into all possible marketable venues, developing even further demographic specializations on a global scale. Specific examples are not needed because advertisements ranging for any possible product, be it peanut butter to car models, all create a must-have frenzy for that particular product.

For those of you still reading, this blogger asks that you be a conscious, analytical consumer, for the sake of your wallet and for the sake of your mental welfare. Yes the latest model of this or that may seem alluring and highly appealing. However, think for a moment if it is necessary, and if so, if you are making an evaluated decision. After all, a conscious consumer can make for a less manipulative market. Thank you.

(Graphic from, which offers its material for free.)

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November 25, 2008

Men, the Media & Sexism

by Zack Huhn

You always hear complaints about how women have to deal with the stereotypical media roles that degrade how women are portrayed in society. Let’s discuss how men have to deal with the SAME stereotypes. Get over it — media glamorize being beautiful and powerful or important, regardless of sex. Many times, men often play one of a few stereotypical roles in media, which if the same reaction is taken to this as women, means they are expected to always act that way in everyday life. Be it the jock or the class clown, the superstar athlete or brave hero, this is obviously an impossible reality for almost any man to live up to. Be honest, how many shirtless, hairless, toned, athletic, tall, tan, intelligent, funny, interesting and entertaining male supermodels do you see walking around campus at American University every day? This nearly unattainable image affects men just as much, if not more than women; it affects our relationship opportunities, job opportunities, social circles and more. Men have to wonder: am I masculine enough, well enough dressed, tall enough, thin enough, muscular enough, athletic enough, smart enough, wealthy enough, funny enough, interesting enough, strong enough, caring enough, powerful enough — just like women. Are my teeth as white and straight as the guy in the commercial? Is my car as nice as his? Will people notice that my skin is slightly less than perfect? I work out, but I still have a little work to do. Will people understand? When we see images of women in swimsuits or underwear, we criticize. When we see images of men in swimwear or underwear, we don’t think twice. It’s ironic; the very girls complaining about the stereotypes they have to deal with are the same girls watching Gossip Girl and The Hills, reading Us Weekly and Cosmopolitan. Don’t get me wrong, I love that these shows encourage us to dress well and be hygienic. I’m not complaining about the images they portray, nor am saying one is wrong to complain; but we have to understand that men face the same media bias as women, and if people want to make a change, they have to stop supporting what they claim to be against through buying into the industry!

(The photo is from the Europa BSN Model Search competition in Irving, Texas from 2007; the photo is by SSCusp of Vancouver, WA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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November 24, 2008

The Rise of Sports Media Networks

by Abdullah Faisal

What is a sports fan to do if they missed their favorite basketball team's game? After 1999, a fan could tune into NBA TV and watch highlights from that night of basketball games. The National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and the National Hockey League (NHL) all have television networks broadcasting 24/7. The National Football League is by far the most profitable professional sports league in the United States. To tap into the profitable sports media industry, the NFL launched the NFL Network in 2003. The launch of the NFL Network continued a trend that NBA TV started in 1999. Sports leagues are creating and marketing their own networks and services to provide in-depth coverage to their fans and make a profit.

The creation of league-sponsored television networks and premium sports packages like DirecTV's NBA League Pass ™ and NFL Sunday Ticket ™ are a relatively new trend that benefits sports fans. These sports networks and packages benefit fans like me who live outside of their favorite team's market. I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco 49ers, and Golden State Warriors. Because I do not live in California, I cannot watch them play on a nightly basis. Before the creation of sports networks and packages, I would have to wait until there was a nationally televised game on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) or Turner Network Television (TNT). Now, I can subscribe to NBA League Pass and watch Warriors' games on my computer. And, if I happen to miss a game, I could watch extended highlight clips of that game on NBA TV. Watching your favorite team no matter where you are is revolutionary and sports leagues other than the NBA, NHL, and NFL realize that there is a lot of money to be made in the sports media industry.

Major League Baseball is currently the only major professional sports league in the United States without a network. However, that is going to change on January 1, 2009. The new MLB Network will be different from other sports networks because it is partly owned by cable and satellite companies. As a result, the MLB Network will reach the most households out of any of the other sports networks. On the other hand, the NFL Network is not owned by any media companies so distribution has been an issue. The NFL wants its channel to be offered in a basic cable package without any extra charges, but cable companies like Comcast refuse. As a result, the NFL Network is struggling to reach a large potential audience. Although sports networks like the NFL Network have had some issues, they are in high demand and will have a tremendous impact on how people watch sports and sports news.

(Note: For viewers at American University, NBA TV is Channel 33 on the campus television system and the NFL Network is Channel 81. More information on the dispute between the NFL and the cable companies is also available on the iVoryTowerz blog.)

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