When it comes to stories, however, I’m not sure Medawar could have envisioned their current reincarnation as marketing tools. Almost every morning, I hear at least one ad on the radio boasting of a new medical technology or treatment available at various local hospitals.You know the ads I’m talking about: “Joe Smith was in his forties and the father of three children when he went to see his doctor about some minor abdominal pain.He was diagnosed with colon cancer. At first the cancer didn’t respond to treatment. But then he heard about a new treatment at Greater Aesculapians of New York, where doctors told him the combination
of several new drugs might help.His cancer is now gone.He has a lot more time on his hands, and he’s spending it with his kids…”
Journalists have always been shameless purveyors of the well-told anecdote as a means of conveying a larger trend or idea. Clinical researchers, too, have been known to relay the occasional case study at conferences. But use of the heart-warming anecdote has now become a widespread tool of medical advertising, and I’m not so sure that what’s been good for the goose is good for the gander.
There are still a few people left in clinical research to whom “anecdote” remains a dirty word, and “anecdotal” serves as one of the most withering of adjectives, precisely because anecdotes lack the rectifying science about which Medawar wrote. Too much data is left out, too many informational corners are cut. How long has the happy ending endured? How many people didn’t respond to the treatment? My allergist once told me that a prescription drug heavily advertised on television works in less than 50 percent of the people who try it. Funny, but you don’t get that impression from the ads.
The most important thing about an anecdote, whether in science, journalism or marketing, is that it must be true-true not only in the particulars of the small, simple story, but true to the implications of the larger story. The first part is easy, given the intense regulatory scrutiny of drug advertising. But in the larger sense, anecdotes are often misleading, and by making mass-market promises on the basis of a narrowly true anecdote, medical innovators and drug companies may be contributing, in an invisible but pervasive way, to growing public cynicism about health care. Selling lifesaving medical treatments on radio or TV should be more complicated than selling shampoo.