Women Will Get Cancer: Visual and Verbal Presence (and Absence) in a Pharmaceutical Advertising Campaign about HPV

Article excerpt

At the start of a video that aired repeatedly in the spring of 2006 across major U.S. television channels and online, a woman exclaims, "I don't know why people don't know about this. I don't know why I didn't know." A minute later the video ends by featuring the same woman, only now she smiles at the camera and asserts, "Tell someone." Simultaneously, she points to a white T-shirt that she now wears and that reads across the front, "Tell Someone." This video was part of a national print, television, and online "Tell Someone" direct-to-consumer advertising campaign funded by Merck & Co., Inc., a global pharmaceutical company, to "educate" about the human papillomavirus (HPV) (Merck, 2006c). For example, Merck bought 1,083 television spots in April and May of 2006 for this campaign that, as of the first quarter of that year, totaled about $107 million in spending (Zimm & Blum, 2006). Merck spokeswoman Kelley Dougherty reported that the "Tell Someone" campaign was "part of a broad and longstanding Merck public health commitment to encourage education about the disease" (as cited in Zimm & Blum, 2006). Merck again emphasized the educational mission of the "Tell Someone" campaign in a press release for its subsequent "One Less" direct-to-consumer advertising campaign for Gardasih

In addition to One Less, Merck will continue to separately support HPV disease education including the Tell Someone ... awareness programs to ensure an understanding about the important link between cervical cancer and HPV and the need to continue regular screening. (Merck, 2006d)

On June 8, 2006, only a couple of months after the "Tell Someone" campaign broadcasted over national television and posted online, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil, a vaccine distributed by Merck, for females ages nine to 26 that protects against four HPV types that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2006). Gardasil is the world's first and only cervical cancer drug for women. By November 1, 2006, Gardasil was approved in 50 countries and was added to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Vaccines for Children contract for girls and women aged nine to 18 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006c). In October of 2009, the FDA approved Gardasil for use by males ages nine to 26 (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2009).

Merck's "Tell Someone" direct-to-consumer advertising campaign is a rich site for studying visual and verbal arguments about women's health in the early 21st century United States for a number of reasons. As a direct-to-consumer advertising campaign, it had widespread circulation through mainstream mass media outlets and new media technologies such as the Internet, thereby reaching an expansive lay U.S. audience. In addition, the campaign preceded FDA approval of Gardasil and the CDC recommendations for Gardasil vaccination. Although U.S. government agencies ensure the safety and efficacy of vaccinations through comprehensive research and reviews before approving them for public use, it is highly likely that Merck's "Tell Someone" campaign was seen by, and perhaps persuaded, government officials prior to their approval of Gardasil. (1) Furthermore, it is significant to the purported educational mission of the "Tell Someone" campaign that it circulated before Merck's "One Less" direct-to-consumer advertising campaign for Gardasil that launched in November of 2006 across national print, television, and online media and explicitly pitched the vaccination. By launching the "Tell Someone" campaign first and separating it from its "One Less" advertising campaign for Gardasil, I suggest that Merck presented "Tell Someone" as a public health campaign rather than as an advertisement.

In this essay, I apply a visual and verbal analysis of presence and absence to demonstrate how Merck's "Tell Someone" campaign makes the argument that women will get cancer. …