Arts & Culture » Movies

You be illin'


Why is it that when I’m trying to watch the evening news, I always feel as if I’m doing it from the comfort of a hospital gurney? After reports on Mrs. Clinton’s visit to New York, the breakdown of peace talks in Kosovo and the daily bombing of Saddam’s military toys, we suffer through a spate of ads offering relief from a variety of disorders, addictions and discomforts.

Even Bob Dole, the consummate gentleman politician and recent prostate cancer survivor, is now peddling Viagra on behalf of Pfizer. They’ve given him a quaint little acronym to try to work into the public imagination: ED, short for erectile dysfunction. Jesus Christ, what’s next? How about a rap video, "Droop! There It Is"?

Advertisers, savvy hustlers that they are, know that for every person they hook, they piss off another four. It’s not just the incessant pandering or the sheer repetition of the ads. It’s the hopelessly middle-class blandness of their vision of life, particularly later life. Everyone seems to live in Carmel, or Pacific Grove, Calif.

Out of them all, however, I find one spot particularly odious. While a Windham Hill piano oozes treacle in the background, a rather tired-sounding geezer recounts a heartbreaking episode. One afternoon, his brood of fresh-faced grandkiddies are gathered on the porch with ice cream cones. Gramps, incapacitated by the anemia caused by his chemotherapy, couldn’t make it up the stairs to fetch his camera so that he could preserve this bucolic American moment for posterity. My God, how could this be? you ask, dabbing at your tears like a jilted starlet. Where is the heroic pharmaceutical company with the pill that will stop this madness?

Indeed, in its original incarnation, the ad did a full-court press on your hanky. Yet, perhaps in deference to the irate blubbering of callers to the networks, the spot has undergone a bit of tinkering. When Gramps starts talking about his camera, we now get a snapshot of him cradling a Hasselblad in one hand while he makes an artistic gesture with the other. No longer is he a pathetic old gent denied a Norman Rockwell tableau, one last piece of hokum before he checks out. Now he’s an artist, suffering because he can’t practice his art. Then, after the announcer finishes telling you to chat up your doctor for these wonder pills, the old boy returns, this time positively brimming with energy as he dances around with two little girls, cute as buttons.

This kind of manipulative shit is worse than Spielberg circa ET. Far worse. Americans don’t just fear death. They fear the road leading to death, because they’re already acquainted with the highwaymen who lurk along the way: cynical insurance companies, stingy HMOs, hospitals charging $4 for a glass of water, nursing homes staffed by low-paid reprobates and, last but not least, shyster funeral directors. If the news fosters fear that the world outside is a dangerous place, health product ads tell us that the world inside our bodies is an equally dangerous place, requiring immediate attention to stop the rot.

It’s always been a mystery to me why the American public has never figured out that it’s in their best interests to let the government run health care. Joe McCarthy is dead and buried and Fidel Castro isn’t far behind. The communist dog don’t hunt no more, but capitalism still atomizes individuals, pitting them in competition against one another and thus making any real sense of community very hard.

When you’re young and healthy, being left to your own devices doesn’t sound so bad. But as you age, you realize that the load, both physically and spiritually, becomes heavier. Shit happens. When the government runs the show, as it does in Canada, sure you pay more in theory, but at least you know that there isn’t a star chamber full of human handicappers toiling over a battery of laptops to decide who gets another dose of chemo – out of pocket of the patient, of course – and who gets a pine box. Wouldn’t people prefer to pay for benevolence rather than bottom-line care?

Apparently not. The triumph of the American medical-industrial complex has been convincing people that health and health care are the equivalent of auto care. New heart, new oil filter. Fuck Motorcraft, buy Fram!

Television advertising of remedies, prescription and otherwise, is a symptom of a system that’s rigged for providers. When a McDonald’s ad appears just before one for Henry Ford Hospital’s cancer unit, the mind can’t help but connect the dots – toxic waste in, expensive tumors out, drinks all around at the country club for those providing the services.

Only in research does competition seem to have benefits. Whoever finds the cure wins a wack of stock options and a license to print money. Little wonder that people from around the world arrive at American cancer clinics for the latest experimental treatment. No small thanks to the promotional ads on CNN International.

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