Thursday, May 14, 2009
Trick Question: Bias in the Media, Andy Behrman, Abilify, And Anomalies in the Truth-Reality Continuum
What is wrong with this sentence?
"In 2004, Bristol-Myers held a retreat for 1,250 sales representatives, to prepare them to market a powerful psychiatric drug for a new use - bipolar disorder."
This sentence appeared in an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
Answer: The adjective "powerful" is highly emotive. When you see the word "powerful" in proximity to mention of a drug, you can expect a negative story against the med or the circumstances surrounding it to follow.
We want our prescription meds to be powerful. We want them to work. If you doubt this, next time you're being prepped for surgery, ask for a "weak" anesthetic.
It turns out that aside from the unfortunate adjective, the WSJ turned in stellar work:
The story is about Andy Behrman, author of "Electroboy." In 2004, Bristol-Myers Squibb paid Andy $400,000 as a celebrity patient spokesperson for Abilify. (Editorial sidebar: Fair enough. No one complained when Terry Bradshaw became a Paxil spokesperson.) But, as the WSJ reports, Andy had only been on the drug for four days before being filmed in a promotional video. According to the WSJ, at a company retreat for sales reps:
"A video of Mr. Behrman, a 42-year-old bipolar patient, filled a gigantic screen. He recounted how a Bristol-Myers drug, called Abilify, had changed his life. Unlike other medicines he had tried, Abilify had no side effects, he said. The testimonial drew a standing ovation."
(The image to this blog piece is from BMS's Abilify website, the image of the happy patient the company wishes to promote.)
You can probably figure out what happened next. Andy developed side effects severe enough to cause him to stop taking the drug within a year. Nevertheless, "he continued to talk glowingly about Abilify throughout 2004 and 2005."
In 2006, Andy wrote a piece for About.com about his bad experiences with Abilify. BMS was predictably unhappy. About.com pulled the piece. BMS was running Abilify ads at the time.
Wait, there's more to this. Andy has written a book on his experience, about to be released. Today, in my email box, came a mass mailing from Andy with this heading:
"Andy Behrman Tells the Truth."
In the email, Andy says: "It's time to hold drug makers like BMS accountable for their corrupt practices and harmful products. Just as culpable, if not more so, are the licensed physicians that aid and abet them. Do no harm? I don't think so."
Um, Andy. I think I'm detecting an anomaly in the truth-reality continuum here. Here is where I'm confused: If you are telling the truth now, precisely what the hell were you telling four years ago?