The first time I saw this commercial for the eyelash-growing drug Latisse (bimatoprost) back in June, I almost wasn’t sure it was real. Sure, we’d blogged on Latisse several times since it received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in late 2008, mainly urging consumers to think hard before using it, given the cost and unsavory risks. But I still couldn’t quite believe the level of glam-infused over-the-topness the commercial imparted, making a powerful prescription drug that can cost more than $100 a month sound like just a really, really cool new makeup item (and featuring superstar Brooke Shields, no less). If I didn’t know better (and it wasn’t a Tuesday), I would have thought it was a Saturday Night Live skit, like this hilarious take on extended-cycle birth-control pills.
The Latisse commercial might portray it as the new big thing, but it’s not really new at all; it originated as Lumigan, a glaucoma medication approved in 2001 that, in a stroke of pure luck for its manufacturer, turned out to have the unusual side effect of lengthening, thickening, and darkening users’ eyelashes. Hence, a rebranding as the first FDA approved treatment for sparse or inadequate eyelashes, clinically known as hypotrichosis. A representative for Brooke Shields declined to say how long Brooke has suffered from the disease of eyelash inadequacy. But she did confirm that Brooke started using Latisse in February 2009, “after consulting with a doctor who determined she was an appropriate candidate for treatment with LATISSE,” and that she is still using it. If you’re good at math, you’ll know that adds up to around $800 worth of eyelash improvement and counting.
The fact that the Latisse commercial looks like an ad for makeup rather than a drug is only the beginning of what completely freaks me out about it. Somehow this single commercial and its print companions running in magazines like Allure manages to embody everything that’s wrong about direct-to-consumer drug advertising. Specifically:
Manufacturing need. Every drug we’ve profiled in our AdWatch project is appropriate for some people, including Latisse, and some are potentially lifesaving. What we take issue with is taking a legitimate medical condition and broadening its definition to the point where it could apply to almost anyone—often with a clever acronym like ED, PAD, or RLS to make it sound more common than it is. (We’re surprised Allergan, the maker of Latisse, hasn’t given a nickname to eyelash hypotrichosis, like Hy-Tri or something.)
New and lucrative uses for old drugs. How many people in the world have glaucoma? Okay, now how many have eyelashes? You can see where we’re going with this. Finding a large market for a drug spells gold for manufacturers. Cha-ching!
Drugs as lifestyle enhancers. Fewer periods, better eyelashes, sex whenever you want it: No question these are desirable outcomes for many people. But unlike other consumer products, like refrigerators or toasters, drugs have side effects—sometimes nasty ones. For some folks, it may be worth taking on those risks, even if it’s only for convenience or cosmetic purposes. But it doesn’t help that the ads tend to downplay potential dangers in favor of showing how happy you’d be if you just took the drug. And they rattle off serious side effects in voices so soothing and sweet you might miss the fact they’re talking about things like compulsive gambling and possible death.
Star power. Companies have long used famous people to hawk goods and services, and for good reason: Celebrities sell. But the use of big stars like Sally Field and Brooke Shields to sell prescription drugs raises a unique set of issues. Not only do drugs affect people’s health, but the ones you see advertised are generally the newest, most expensive drugs, and someone has to pay for them. Even if your insurance company covers that $100-plus-a-month vial of Latisse or $400-a-month supply of Abilify (aripiprazole), expensive or unnecessary drugs have the effect of driving up health-care costs for everyone.
As for Latisse, its flashy ad campaign has caught ire from at least one other group: the Food and Drug Administration, which in September warned Allergan that promotional materials on the drug’s Web site omitted or minimized certain risks. All the more reason to consider the cheaper nonprescription option we mention in our video. After all, Brooke got by all these years without Latisse. And she’s done OK, no?
—Jamie Kopf Hirsh, associate editor