A Tough Pill for Parents to Swallow

Imagine a magical pill that can cure acne, improve your style and give you tickets to a happening concert. Sounds like a teenager’s dream come true — or so the makers of Yaz oral contraceptive wanted your daughters to believe. Recently, when your teenage daughter logged online to check her e-mail or chat with friends, she may have seen a hip and energetic banner featuring the pop duo The Veronicas stamped on her screen. The banner was part of a marketing venture by the contraceptive brand Yaz, which enlisted the image of the youthful musical act and their pop/rock style that is undeniably tailored to a teenage female demographic (an appeal that is solidified by the fact that they have toured with the Jonas Brothers). The promise of an opportunity to win a trip to see the singers live in concert in Los Angeles was only a click away — and proudly sponsored by Yaz.

This advertisement was clearly intended to entice the mouse clicks of teenage girls — and parents should smell a rat.

The banner prompt led to the Yaz-US website, which flashes between images of fashionably dressed young women and glossy fashion covers. The visitor is presented with tidbits such as: “Beyond birth control: Additional benefits of Yaz” — like clearing up acne. Acne is perhaps the most universal of all problems affecting teenage girl’s insecurities, making it an ideal gateway into the minds of the target demographic. With acne mentioned on the home page, you might start to think you are looking at a website for skin care rather than a contraceptive drug. A “pill pack make-over contest” that ran on the website searched for a way to make a birth-control pack a trendy accessory.

With good skin and good fashion sense conquered by this wonder drug, the only promise that remained was a free tune to rock out to. And Yaz had that covered, too. The Yaz website was linked to WNGTI.com, a teaser site for downloading a free song from The Veronicas. The URL initials stand for the downloadable track “We’re Not Gonna Take it,” an allusion to not taking the discomfort associated with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). The song download was free, but that doesn’t mean it came without a price. An e-mail address was necessary to initiate the download, no doubt so that the information could be gathered, allowing for downloaders to later be solicited with information about pharmaceuticals. Confirmation of this is found in the fine print of the privacy policy: “The personal information you provide to us will be used to supply you with information, services and research interaction associated with the Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals product or program in which you indicated interest.”

This was where the song download fanfare hit a sour note. There was no age restriction on the download; a girl of any age was free to give her e-mail address for the purposes of a pharmaceutical company. Again, the fine print is telling: “In order to gain that understanding, Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals may automatically collect information such as length of users’ visits to a particular site, which pages were viewed on a site, geographic location of groups of site visitors, etc.”

Most parents don’t even maintain that level of access over their child’s online life, so they should stand up and take notice when a drug company does. Preventing teen girls from suffering PMDD symptoms stands out as a notable medical quest; however, like acne, moodiness and hormonal unrest is usually a consequence of being a teenager and not an underlying medical problem. Assigning PMDD to these symptoms may cause girls to misdiagnose themselves and feel that Yaz is an answer to their problems. While the promotional site sings the praises of Yaz for treatment of PMDD, the website’s own fine print reveals less confidence: “The effectiveness of Yaz for PMDD when used for more than three menstrual cycles has not been evaluated. Yaz has not been evaluated for the treatment of Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS).” An anthem dedicated to a relief of symptoms that cannot be verified? Is PMDD simply a ruse for pushing birth control on young women?

It should be noted that this advertising campaign caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration. Last October, the FDA sent a letter to Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals regarding two advertisements, one of which was the “Not Gonna Take It” spot mentioned in this commentary. The FDA stated: “The TV ads are misleading because they broaden the drug’s indication, overstate the efficacy of Yaz, and minimize serious risks associated with the use of the drug.” In February, the company agreed to run corrective ads.

The ads were pulled, but the damage was done. Dr. Kathleen Raviele, a noted obstetrician-gynecologist and past president of the Catholic Medical Association, has one word to describe the push of contraceptives on teenage girls: chauvinistic. “I have a lot of moms who bring their daughters to me, and the dermatologist wants the daughter to go on the pill,” she says. When parents ask her what she would do in the situation, she instructs them to tell the dermatologist, “Treat my daughter the same way you would treat my son.”

Raviele points out that acne is an issue that is usually self-resolving once the patient has entered their post-teen years — making the natural curve of adolescence a better solution to the problem than a prescription for birth control, especially when weighed against the side effects, which include headaches, weight gain, breast lumps, stroke and increased risk for breast cancer.

While the parents’ intention may be to help their daughter in dealing with a confidence-destroying acne condition, they may be unknowingly green-lighting sexual behavior in their daughters. In her own experience, Raviele has seen girls placed on the pill for non-contraceptive reasons only to come into her office a year or two later having contracted a sexually transmitted disease. She warns: “Parents are opening the door to that child becoming sexually active. When a teenage girl goes on birth control for some other reason, she is no longer going to have the fear of getting pregnant.” Raviele points to a disturbing trend in birth-control commercials, like for the brand Seasonale, which portray a woman having four periods a year as “stylish or fashionable,” when in fact it is medically abnormal. Raviele’s prescription to this growing issue is parental vigilance and common sense, such as parents not allowing their kids to have computers in their bedrooms. “This is such an incredible battle,” she adds.

The battle is made greater when you consider that the World Health Organization has classified estrogen-progesterone birth control pills as “carcinogenic to humans,” meaning cancer-causing. Cigarette ad campaigns are stomped out if there is so much as an ember of appeal to youth, so how can we allow the wildfire of oral contraceptives to run rampant?

It is dangerous when a physiologically altering pharmaceutical is marketed no less flippantly than a fashion accessory or a stick of gum.

Parents, this is a call to action. Be wary of who is marketing to your children. Something as simple as a free song download can lead to your impressionable daughters receiving information that is not only misleading, but may make them a target of further marketing ploys.

What is scary about this type of stealth marketing is that teenage girls are not out searching for this information, but it is out searching for them. After all, a Bayer pharmaceutical website is probably not the place a teenager would visit — until it is dressed up in concert clothes and thrust on stage in front of them.

Parents, why not take a cue from these pharmaceutical companies: It’s time for the chorus of the song, where you can fight back, “We’re Not Gonna Take It!”

Carrie Marcarelli O’Connell lives in Milford, Connecticut,

and holds a B.A. in English from Saint Joseph College.

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