Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Fake Meg Ryan ad sheds light on celeb drug endorsements

Adam Levine, frontman of the rock band Maroon 5, has ADHD—a fact he states in awareness ads sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Shire that are sometimes paired with the NBC show “The Voice”, on which he is a judge. Shire is the maker of the ADHD drugs Intuniv (guanfacine) and Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine). Aided by Levine’s star power (and that of his golden retriever Frankie, who cameos in the spot), Vyvanse is likely to pull in $1 billion this year.

The ad makes Levine the latest in a long line of celebrities who have been on the payroll of pharmaceuticals and appeared in ads. The list famously includes Paula Deen, Bob Dole and Sally Field. Even Larry the Cable—and Prilosec—Guy has gotten in on the action.

In general, consumer pharmaceutical ads (the kind featuring beaming and healthy but unknown faces) are as effective at boosting sales as they are at attracting vitriol. To critics, the use of celebrities only serves to make drug ads more galling. Just look at the Congressional probes, media criticism and other embarrassments they have spurred. But every time the subject bubbles up again (thanks Adam and Frankie!) it seems that one question—having nothing to do with taste or ethics—is overlooked: do celebrities add potency to drug ads?

Well, in March, Health Marketing Quarterly published a study focused on that very question. While the research looks only at print ads, and does not consider the seemingly ubiquitous television counterpart to them (we are looking at you, Sally Field) it provides some interesting data. The researchers created two types of ads for a fictitious antihistamine, unimaginatively dubbed ‘Allergone’. One depicted actress Meg Ryan. The other featured a non-celebrity. They asked 482 adults what they thought. In short, they found, “no significant difference in credibility and effectiveness” between the two ads. So, celebrities may not be very convincing salespeople when it comes to drugs, according to the researchers, lead by Nilesh Bhutada, a pharmacy care administrator at California Northstate University College of Pharmacy in Rancho Cordova, California.

The following is a partial history of celebrity prescription drug ads:

First and foremost, here is a frame from Levine’s recent Shire-sponsored ADHD ad. Watch for Frankie 23 seconds in.


Oscar-winning actress Sally Field’s Boniva commercials have been in heavy rotation for some time.


No tour of star-studded drug ads would be complete without a helping of Victoza from Paula Deen.


Larry the Cable and Prilosec Guy plugs the drug in this commercial.


This is the famous (infamous?) Viagra campaign featuring Bob Dole.


Enbrel spokesman Phil Mickelson is also a professional golfer.

Longtime Good Morning America co-host Joan Lunden doesn’t sneeze at drug commercials, such as hers for Claritin.


Despite its findings, the new study (and any that follow) may never stop detractors from objecting to celebrity drug commercials. And surely those critics are not alone: the US the only industrialized nation in the world besides New Zealand that permits them.

 Image by david_shankbone via Flickr Creative Commons.