Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I refuse to take your commercial seriously.

In the two-plus years I've been writing this blog, I've been accused many times of being a downer and a party-pooper. (What's the up-to-date terminology for that, by the way? And keep it clean, please.) But I have a feeling I'm going to outdo myself today. In fact, if ever I've written a post that might make someone want to give me a good slap upside the head, this is the one. It touches on a topic that's very much a raw nerve for many folks, and women in particular. The thing is, I've seen the damn commercial a half-dozen times now, and it leaves me wincing and shaking my head every time. I just couldn't take it anymore.

The commercial* I have in mind is one in a series put out by Bristol-Myers Squibb, in this case featuring actress Lynn Redgrave, who's been waging a highly publicized war against breast cancer for a while now. The basic message of the Redgrave spot is that she's not going to let cancer beat her. Toward the end she smiles into the camera and puts it this way: "I refuse to die from breast cancer. I want to die of something else."

OK, I'm not stupid, I get it. It's supposed to be one of those empowering, never-give-up, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar spots. (I say this especially because it seems to run most often on Lifetime.) Redgrave is giving herself and other cancer victims a little pep talk. (In fact, she'd probably bristle at the use of the word victim.) She's trying to make cancer patients feel less helpless; she's giving them a reason to smile.

That's fine and dandy. But have we lost all reverence for little things like, oh, I don't know...making sense?

Are we to assume that Redgrave's avowed refusal to die of cancer somehow obviates the need for treatment? After all, that's the clear, taken-to-its-logical end point implication here: it's the "mental attitude" that's making the difference, not medicine. Because, see, one assumes that Redgrave has already had all the standard medical interventions. So at this point, she's relying on her will to survive. But if your will to survive can really carry the day against cancer when it "tries to come back" after treatment, then what do you need the treatment for in the first place? Why not just energize that will to survive a little sooner? That way you can dispense with the disfiguring surgery, and you don't have to lose all that beautiful hair in chemo, either.

(TIME-OUT FOR A NOTE: If you're getting pretty hot at me right about now, I ask only that you consider: THIS is what happens in today's America. We make subjects "untouchables," so that no one is allowed to use common sense in analyzing them. As Bill Maher learned when he lost his original show, there are settings in which we can't even raise certain ideas or ask certain questions without being "impolitic." This is what the Bush Administration has done so successfully with Iraq over the past five years. I'm not making a political statement here; I'm just talking tactics. Every time somebody rises up against the war, the Bush team trots out 9/11 or "our boys in Iraq" or "patriotism." They kill debate by trumping it with emotionalism and making people with legitimate grievances feel like traitors. I think maybe America could use a bit more thinking and bit less sentiment. Whether the subject is Iraq, breast cancer, race, etc. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program...)

If Redgrave and another woman both have surgery and chemo and go through all the treatments, do we really have any proof that Redgrave's refusal makes her less likely to die than the other woman, who's perhaps a bit more pessimistic? (And if two women seem equally upbeat, but one of them later dies, does that mean the one who died was secretly weaker in character than the one who lived?) Or what about this: Suppose Redgrave's optimism is misplaced; suppose she relapses and dies anyway. What things might she have left undone that she later wishes she'd taken care of if—feeling less optimistic initially—she'd rushed to squeeze all those things in before dying? In that respect, this ad plays into that whole "downside of being uplifted" phenomenon that I've written about many times, where people actually end up disempowered because they put their faith in a form of power that turned out to be illusory.

Finally, I don't like this ad because it evinces that familiar alt-med mentality that has been the basis of so much health fraud. How many people have been suckered into bogus "spiritual healing" therapies by appeals very much like the one Redgrave makes?

But the ultimate question: If you really can beat cancer just by "refusing" to die from it—by making up your mind—then why not also refuse to die of heart disease and diabetes and all the other maladies that fall into the category of Redgrave's preferred "something else"? In fact, why not simply refuse...to die?

I know. Now that's just plain silly....

* The way Bristol-Myers has the site set up, this link may bring you to the main page, which is basically a "menu" of their ads. If you type Redgrave's name into the search box, however, her ad promptly comes up.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
After reading this one, I kinda think you need to go back to the breakfast table and eat another bran muffin or two! :-)

I didn't see anything in this spot that suggested replacing treatment with a positive attitude or implying that Redgrave was exercising any magical power over disease. To me, she was just declaring her will to live and enjoy life, in spite of her illness' potential for taking her life.

As we all know (but typically refuse to really consider), life itself is terminal. Nobody gets out alive. Might as well experience and focus on the life you have than upon the death that's coming. Kinda like the monk who is plummeting to his death, spies a strawberry growing on the side of the cliff, plucks it, eats it, and declares, "How delicious!"

IMO, that's the highest form of reverence we can pay to our lives - to simply live them.

Now if you want to talk about bad commercials, let's look at the ones that start out, "Who does depression hurt?" The damn things are depressing as heck... but I guess the whole idea is to sell more antidepressants...

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I politely disagree. (Not about the bran muffin, though. It's a swell idea.) If Redgrave and Bristol-Myers and their copywriters were just trying to "be inspiring," they would've used different verbiage. They would've talked about living life to the fullest, making the most of every day--even "refusing to give in" to cancer. But refusing to die? That's straight out of The Secret, man. And I dare say, they're doing it in order to pander to women: "We really love you! We have your best interests in mind. Come join our team and we'll help you beat this!" They're doing it to create a positive image for themselves and, ultimately, to sell product.

The basic problem is that shows like Oprah and books like The Secret have bid the inspirational threshold up so high that just "being optimistic" is no longer enough, these days. (If you're merely "optimistic" you're almost considered a gloom-and-doomer.) In order to be considered a "true" positive thinker, you have to express yourself in jargon that bespeaks a total abandonment of reason. Like this commercial. Or our pal Joe Vitale.

We need to start calling a spade a spade--yes, even it it makes us "downers"--in order to restore some reverence for reality and common sense.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how a commercial made by a pharmaceutical company could be touting treatment avoidance. Surely the implication is that Lynn is taking all those Bristol-Myers products because she's determined to "beat" (uh-huh) breast cancer, and you should, too...

RevRon's Rants said...

I guess we just read something different into the spot. In my perspective, you've grown so accustomed to looking for the nonsensical that you have a tendency to see it where others might not. Conversely, you might perceive that I am prone to seeing the positive, and overlooking the "problem."

I admit to being prone to thinking positively - if pragmatically, just as you admit to being a bit of a "downer" sometimes. Cest la vie!

Doesn't make either of us wrong... just different. Interesting how different folks can see the same thing, yet "see" something so differently.

Anonymous said...

You dislike bad news as much as the next person. So let's say, you've been told that you have inoperable cancer with only a few months to live, and drugs were no longer an option. Everything you experience from that day forward will look and feel different--I guarantee it! In fact, you will wish there were a magic SECRET to make it all better. We all must rise to the occasion, and for some folks--it's life!

Lana said...

As a woman, I can relate to Redgrave's desire to die from something else. I'd rather die from a quick heart attack than rot away from cancer -- especially breast cancer. I probably don't need to spell out what breasts mean to women and men.

Redgrave is doing a commercial for a drug company. It doesn't make sense to me that she is now relying only on her will to live. In any case, I can totally understand her defiance. And it has nothing to do with positive thinking or dubious spiritual healing therapies.

Yep -- I would like to give you a good slap!

Steve Salerno said...

You wouldn't be the first, Lana. And lord knows I'd probably deserve most of 'em.

RevRon's Rants said...

"They're doing it to create a positive image for themselves and, ultimately, to sell product."

I should have addressed this statement in my initial post. Sure, thy are trying to sell product. Where they differ from the Secretion hucksters is that the product they are selling has actually been proven to work in combating disease, rather than relying upon unquantifiable and unqualified magic and wishful thinking. A very significant differentiation, IMO.

RevRon's Rants said...

Word is out! Steve is a bad, bad boy, into being punished! :-)

Rational Thinking said...

Yep I'd say the ad reeks of the "you get to choose" mindset (aka you create your own reality).

The premise appears to be that everybody else with breast cancer who took the meds, had the treatment, and yet died, agreed to do so?

Not in the best of taste, methinks.

Two Write Hands said...

"America could use a bit more thinking and bit less sentiment."

I'd buy that bumper sticker.

The Crack Emcee said...

"Every time somebody rises up against the war, the Bush team trots out 9/11 or "our boys in Iraq" or "patriotism." They kill debate by trumping it with emotionalism and making people with legitimate grievances feel like traitors."

Ha - Instead of watching the Lifetime Channel, I'm putting Chicago's 1968 Democratic Convention (the one when the cops beat the hippies senseless to the strains of the MC5) on a permanent loop so I always have something entertaining to watch on TV..

I may not be part of "the Bush team" but I, too, have a dream,...

Lana said...

I'm not so sure that the treatments have been proven to work. Cancer is now the number one killer of men and women. We aren't winning the war on cancer.

I believe that we do get to choose what to do when handed a death sentence. You can choose to do whatever you can to get well and live, you can choose to believe the death sentence and get your house in order, or whatever you want.

I'd hate to be Redgrave's shoes. She's fighting for her life, which most humans will naturally do. I don't know why this survival instinct is hard to understand.

Steve Salerno said...

Sigh. Lana, I am not taking issue with her survival instinct. I want Lynn Redgrave to live. I want us all to live. Geez.

See, this, to me, epitomizes the problem; once again, I'm attacking the empty-headed rhetoric, and people are attacking me because, to their way of thinking, any attack on "a cancer survivor" is somehow gauche or otherwise impermissible.

My basic point is that the cancer is gonna do what it's gonna do, and if she takes every step known to mankind and still is unsuccessful at stopping its spread, she's gonna die--regardless of her "refusal" to do so. That's all I'm saying. And I'm attacking her rhetoric because it's symptomatic of all the "empowered, I can-do-ANYTHING!" nonsense that pervades this society, and in many subtle ways, cripples it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Lana -
While the treatments for cancer are by no means universally successful, there has been a marked increase in the survival rate over the years, which is rightfully attributed to those treatments.

Of course, along with improved treatments, we are hit with an ever-increasing barrage of carcinogens in our air, water, and even our food, so the progress isn't as good as it could be.

IMHO, it's better to do whatever we can on the medical side, while striving to maintain a positive outlook. Whether a positive outlook - and even silly affirmations - can improve our chance for survival is questionable, but I think it's better than sitting in the dark, seething about a disease that might end our life.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
If you prepare for a game, spending lots of time at batting practice and running infield drills, would you then walk up to the plate when you're at bat and tell yourself you're going to strike out?

What you say won't change the outcome if you aren't physically prepared, but once you've taken care of the physical necessities, doesn't it help to walk up to the plate telling yourself you're gonna put it out of the park? Or at the very least, make you feel a bit better? I just don't see the difference - or the harm.

Lana said...

Obviously I need to think through what you're saying. I'm having trouble understanding.

You call Redgrave's natural desire to fight to live and using strong language to state her will to live "empty-headed rhetoric." I truly don't get it!

All I'm saying is that it's natural to use emphatic, emotive, defiant language when in a fight for our lives. Whether or not our will to live or defiance makes a difference, who knows? Maybe it does. I don't see this as being symptomatic of empowerment nonsense.

By the way, I'm not attacking you. I'm reacting to what you're saying and providing my perspective.

Lana said...

Hi RevRon,
You might be right about an increase in survival rates due to certain treatments. I don't know.

But I have this question: If the treatments work, why would it matter how many cancer cases there are to treat?

(I'll probably regret getting into this discussion!)

Steve Salerno said...

Lana, you must understand (or at least I ask you to) that the use--the misuse--of language is a pet peeve of mine. Artful rhetoric is the primary way by which the SHAM guru hoodwinks his customers. I worry when I see such totally artificial and unrealistic rhetoric bleed over into the mainstream, because it corrupts not just language, but thinking.

Lana, I was trying to be ironic and yet pointed with the final line of my post. For Redgrave to say "I refuse to die from cancer" is NO SILLIER and ridiculous than her saying "I refuse to die." Period. After a certain point, she has very little control over whether she lives or dies. And again, the implication that we humans do have an inordinate degree of control over our destinies (as in The Secret) is one of the primary problems with modern self-help. It lies to people. But they believe the lies. And they live their lives in a cocoon of illusion and unreality. Meanwhile, nothing changes, and life--real life--passes them by. Why do you think the same people keep buying the same (basic) self-help books year after year after year?

Lana said...

I can understand your point if that is what is truly happening in the commercial. I guess I don't see what you're seeing.

And we probably aren't on the same page about the amount of control we have in our lives, especially regarding our health. So, I'm done with this topic here :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Well, Lana, I hope you'll return when we explore other regions. If I've been hypersensitive (or "touchy") in my perceptions--and clearly you're not the only one who thinks so here--I yield to the collective wisdom.

Lana said...

Oh, I'll be back. I like your blog.

You shared your perspective; I shared mine; we learned that we're not on the same page (or book). I'm not cut out to do lengthy debates, especially when I KNOW I don't have all the facts and that people with your background and intelligence can easily have me for lunch :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Nah. Just a between-meal snack, maybe. :)

Cosmic Connie said...

Sorry I came in late on this one. I was focused on a fight on another thread. :-) I have to side with Ron and Lana that you may have overreacted a tad re this commercial, Steve, but I don't think it's a slappable offense.

I would like to think that one's attitude can make a difference in how one *experiences* illnes, even if it doesn't influence the course of the disease. I do agree, however, that a sort of PMA tyranny surrounds cancer in our culture. Even if one doesn't take the horrid new-age guilt line that cancer patients "attracted" their illness, there's still a tendency to blame patients who aren't perky and cheery and defiant enough.

And yes, there's a tinge of SHAM language in the Redgrave commercial. But it's not enough to upset me.

BTW... I got the bran muffin joke ("It's a swell idea"). Groan.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that more people are surviving cancer or being "cured," whether from chemo, radiation, or any other treatment. What I do believe is that these treatments are prolonging people's lives for a year or a few years (often for a horrific price), and that this is skewing the statistics into the oft-quoted improved cure rates. Which, unfortunately, can result in complacency in the face of astronomic increases in cancer rates. And I also disagree with your take on the commercial, Steve. But I very much agree with you and others here that cancer is the elephant in today's rooms. We are all so terrified of developing it that we enclose the very topic--as well as its victims--inside an ominous, phony brightness that's worthy of Orwell, "The Prisoner," or "The Stepford Wives." As T.S. Eliot so accurately observed, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."

Steven Sashen said...

I'd like to highlight another layer in this discussion:

What's wrong with dying?

So far, everyone who isn't alive has done it. And, Ray Kurzweil be damned, I'll bet everyone alive now does it, too.

And, clearly, everyone's got to do it somehow. The idea that one method is better/worse than another doesn't hold much water. Or, even worse, the notion that your method of death reveals some possibly hidden aspect of your personality (e.g. Liver cancer?! Oh, he *was* an angry person after all!).

Without a conversation and understanding about the root of the issue -- death itself and the ways in which it occurs -- peddlers are able to leverage our uninvestigated fears and irrational hopes.

Anonymous said...

It's not so much "what's wrong with dying"--and wow, that opens up quite the philosophical/religious can of worms--but the manner in which one dies. I think cancer is so feared because of the lingering, agonizing manner in which one dies from it, as opposed to, say, dying in one's sleep. I don't know about anyone else, but if I can't live forever, I want to wake up dead. (And yes, dammit, I think the world is a fabulous place and would prefer to live forever if the option were available!)

Steven Sashen said...

Ah, but the "manner in which we die" is not simply the mechanism, but includes a whole rash of thoughts and beliefs about one manner vs. another.

I feel inspired to quote Epictetus (as much as one can quote someone whose discourses were inked by his students):

We are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of them.

I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?

If, for the sake of argument, we had different views about the manner of death, let alone death itself, our experience of "painful" and "lingering" would be dramatically altered.

Imagine, again for the sake of discussion, what would change if we viewed a painful, lingering demise as a prerequisite for a spiritual awakening that can only occur upon dying -- that anyone who dies unconsciously misses the chance for that leap.

Same "event", very different world... and a Lynne Redgrave commercial about how she INSISTS on letting this cancer take her down, kicking and screaming!

(and, again, I'm NOT suggesting a cosmology or mythology; merely echoing Epictetus)

Mary Anne said...

I don't want to bog down your blog, but it's funny you quoted Arrian's (Epictetus' pupil and chief scribe) words attributed to Epictetus. Epictetus' main philosphy was, we (mankind/humankind) are subject to our views on life. Bad and good things happen, but their importance is only in how we view them. We all have to die, but we choose how we view death, hence our experience of death. Epictetus would actually have been twisted into a self-help guru if he were alive today. He had a self-help feel to him. He historically has been portrayed as quite charasmatic too.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't think that was me, Mary Anne, but rather an amalgam of stuff said by Ron and one of our anonymous commenters. But an interesting point nonetheless. It's always good to learn the background of these things, especially when we think we invented ideas that were actually thought and formalized a thousand years ago.

RockitQueen said...

First, I want to say that it totally made my day that you commented on my blog! I just lent your book to my mom to read, too! Weird...I'm ashamed to say that I've never seen the original Cape Fear and will definitely put it in the queue. Love Mitchum...

Your post is rather timely for me, as I just lost my beloved uncle to lung cancer. He was 81 years old, never smoked (no one in our family smokes either), walked/jogged several miles a day until he couldn't anymore and generally lived a healthy life. His attitude was that he was happy with life and he would try to fight the cancer, but if it was his time to go, then ok. He fought, but also had realistic expectations. He is a hero to our family.

It infuriates me that this whole attitude of "If you believe hard enough, then you won't die!" is so pushed these days. How awful that the alternative to this idea is that the person didn't try hard enough to live. It's insulting and dangerous. People can be spending time with family and doing things they love while they can—like my uncle did—instead of wishing for the impossible.

Anonymous said...

You're a jerk.
This commercial was NOT that deep. It was plain and simple, giving hope to those with cancer, and even to those without it (like me). Yes, me. I felt hope for all those out there suffering from something.
Just because you have a disease or a disorder, doesn't mean you have to die from it, and let it beat you.

Are you going to mock the death of someone who had cancer, but died from choking, because they laughed too hard?

That was the point of the commercial. Quit looking too far into things, unless of course, you have to because you dont have anything else to write about.

Steve Salerno said...

It's a fair comment, though I could've lived without the "jerk" part. But still, I stand by the sentiments expressed. I am not ROOTING for people to die of cancer. My father died of cancer at 60. I'm just sick of the "meta-messages" that convey false hope, invincibility, blah blah blah. They're intentional--I'm sure of it--and they're usually for-profit.

jpatti said...

"As a woman, I can relate to Redgrave's desire to die from something else. I'd rather die from a quick heart attack than rot away from cancer -- especially breast cancer. I probably don't need to spell out what breasts mean to women and men."

Yes, please do spell it out. My MIL had a double mastectomy before she died of breast cancer. I'd like to know what that "meant" to those of us who knew her.

Only 50% of those who have a first heart attack are lucky enough to die from it quickly. As a woman who's had a heart attack, and subsequent bypass, I can tell you what breasts mean to me... pain and a protracted recovery.

Immediatly after the surgery, I was instructed not to lift more than 5 lbs of weight with my arms, even though much more weight than that hung off of either side of my surgical wound. Six months later, after many pain meds, rehabilitation exercises, expensive bras, etc. - I still can't lift all my own pots and pans. BTW, I'm all of 45 years old.

I was rather disappointed to have passed my recent mammogram as it'd have been darned nice to have a rational reason to have these things removed. My daughter's long since grown and I'm postmenopausual so it's not like I need them. As to what that would mean to my husband, it'd likely mean way fewer sleepless nights because of dealing with my pain.

I haven't seen the commercial, but I find the notion that she *refuses* to die of cancer stupidly insulting also. As do I find your comment. I didn't *choose* to have a heart attack cause hey, it's better than breast cancer.

If I get to choose, I choose immortality in a body in much better shape than this one!