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Ad Rant: Is Al Franken trying to kill off the nightly news?

New legislation introduced by, among others, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), would cut off the federal tax deduction for drug companies that make those "direct-to-consumer" ads, the ones on TV convincing you to pop prescription drugs like candy.

There's plenty to hate about those ads. They're ubiquitous, for one thing. They manage to be misleading without being downright untrue. They play into the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" category, because you've got people self-diagnosing without understanding that, in some cases, the side effects can be worse than the underlying condition. ("Death" is one of those annoying side effects.)
The proposed legislation also runs the risk of a side effect that Franken and his cohorts may have not considered: By yanking the financial incentive to run these ads, what will become of TV's nightly news shows?

The audience for the nightly news on CBS, ABC and NBC has been shrinking and graying, like laundry that has been through too many spin cycles. The shows cost millions of dollars to produce. A half-hour news program is paid for by eight minutes of advertising.

Regular news watchers already know that most of those eight minutes are taken up by men with erectile dysfunction getting lucky after taking Cialis, or women being gently lulled to sleep by the Lunesta moth.

Drug companies currently get a tax break to make and market that kind of stuff. They're called "direct-to-consumer" (or DTC) ads, but the consumer is only a means to an end.

The ads routinely beg you to "ask your doctor" for a prescription. It's the doctor those ads are after, not you. They're speaking to those doctors through you, much the way supermarkets put chocolate-coated "breakfast cereal" on the lower shelves to be at eye level with the kiddies. "Ask your doctor" is the same as "throw a tantrum for your mother until she buys you what you want."

I can understand Franken's point -- that Big Pharma shouldn't be making money from using consumers as pawns to achieve their profit margins. But print and TV journalism is already in big trouble.

According to Consumer Reports, drug companies spent $5.375 billion on advertising in 2007. While every dollar spent advertising osteoporosis drug Reclast resulted in just six cents of sales, every dollar spent advertising cholesterol drug Lipitor brought in $59.78 in sales. Without the tax break, you can be sure they'll reconsider how much airtime to buy on the nightly news.

Without those ads, the news shows will have to cut costs. Soon, they'll be lucky to maintain a news bureau in midtown Manhattan, let alone Afghanistan.

On one hand, the death of print and TV journalism means a loss of some of the standards of reporting that have not yet become de rigueur on the Web (such as sourcing and fact checking).

On the other hand, the explosion of DTC advertising from drug companies has resulted in lot of people overmedicating -- why, just the other day, my leg twitched and I just knew it had to be Restless Leg Syndrome, not the six-shot venti Americano I had at 5 p.m.

I'm not saying Franken should withdraw the proposed legislation. I'm asking a general question that so far has no answer: Why is it that the consumer always gets the shaft?


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