An artist creates a drug called Havidol. Say the drug's name out loud, and you get her point
By Melinda Wenner | March 23, 2007
It's just like any other Web site devoted to a drug, really -- the home page for Havidol features an attractive person smiling contentedly, a link to prescribing information (including a chemical formula), and the standard side effects spiel now familiar to anyone who's seen TV drug commercials. The site itself even contains TV and print ads, a self-assessment test to find out if Havidol is right for you, and customer testimonials.
But look a bit closer. The drug is described as "the first and only treatment" for dysphoric social attention consumption deficit anxiety disorder, or DSACDAD -- termed "the #1 concern of contemporary life."
Side effects include "co-dependency with inanimate objects," "inter-species communication," and "terminal smile." In rare instances, patients reported a sudden urge to change physicians.
In other words, neither the drug, nor the condition it treats, are real.
The Web site is the controversial creation of Australian artist Justine Cooper. A recently-closed gallery exhibit, housed in an unassuming building across the street from Marty's Auto Repair in Manhattan, served as a shrine to the drug -- replete with magazine and TV ads, billboards, a larger-than-life gold-plated pill in a glass case, and a "designer" jacket with a fabric pattern inspired by the drug's fictional chemical formula.
Cooper, who is attractive and extremely soft-spoken, says the exhibit and its accompanying Web site are primarily a commentary on Big Pharma, and how we deal with non-deadly conditions, such as Restless Legs Syndrome and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (severe pre-menstrual syndrome).
Cooper acknowledges that the conditions are real, but suggests that drugs aren't always the right solution. And when pharmaceutical companies market drugs for these products, they shape a society in which "everyday life is pathologized and then can be medicalized."
Havidol is also meant to mock society's constant desire for more -- our sense of never being good enough, beautiful enough, thin enough, or successful enough. The site describes people with DSACDAD as those who "believe that despite the opportunities, achievements and acquisitions [they] already have, something is still missing." In an ad both in the exhibit and on the Web site, a beautiful young woman explains that Havidol is the drug she desperately needed her whole life without realizing it. "If you feel like I did, you may have a lifestyle-threatening condition," she says while lounging in a pool. "Thankfully, Havidol can help."
Complaints against disease mongering are nothing new -- Austrian social critic Ivan Illich first raised the subject in his 1976 book Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health. Still, many feel that today it is spiraling out control. And many of the heavily marketed drugs, which can be seen in direct-to-consumer TV ads in the United States and New Zealand (the only two countries in which such advertising is legal), are the types of "lifestyle" drugs Cooper is parodying with Havidol.
In order to continue earning expected profits, pharmaceutical companies try to widen the boundaries of illness to sell more drugs, says Joel Lexchin, a professor of health policy and management at York University in Toronto. Lexchin, who wrote about Pfizer's attempts to redefine erectile dysfunction (part of a recent collection of articles about disease mongering in PLoS Medicine), argues that disease mongering isn't just a nuisance -- it could have serious consequences. Many of the drugs that are marketed directly to consumers are new, he points out, with recent safety profiles, making widespread use a concern.
Although no one from Big Pharma has commented publicly on Havidol -- the five companies contacted by The Scientist declined to do so as well -- Cooper says she has received many positive comments. Audiences have said they appreciate the jab at Big Pharma, enjoy the general cultural commentary, and like that the project pokes fun at advertising, Cooper notes.
According to a document posted online less than a day before the release of the official 2018 budget proposal, the National Institutes of Health could face even deeper cuts than previously suggested by the Trump administration.