“Bring a Change of Clothes With You to Work”?

Jeff Ventura has done an outstanding job of deconstructing the marketing language used to describe the side effects of Alli, a new over-the-counter weight loss drug, so I won't bother to do the same. Just go and read his funny post.

I did want to mention one thing, though.  I was a bit stunned to see stuff like this on the actual Alli page (emphasis mine):

alli™ works by preventing the absorption of some of the fat you eat. The fat passes out of your body, so you may have bowel changes, known as treatment effects. You may get:

  • gas with oily spotting
  • loose stools
  • more frequent stools that may be hard to control

You may feel an urgent need to go to the bathroom. Until you have a sense of any treatment effects, it's probably a smart idea to wear dark pants, and bring a change of clothes with you to work

Couple of observations here.

First, notice how they don't ever refer to side effects. They're "treatment effects" instead. Doubleplusungood.

Second, these "treatment effects" must really be something. I say that because I've been through the process of hashing out Web copy a few times myself, and each time, I've found that the people involved generally fall into one of two camps:

  • Marketers want to play up the positives of whatever you're writing about, and play down the negatives. Their secret dream is for everybody in the world to use the product/service/whatever you're writing about.
  • Lawyers want to play down the positives, and play up the negatives. Their secret dream is for nobody to use the product/service/whatever, since zero users equals zero liability.

(Note that you don't have to actually be a lawyer to fall into the Lawyer camp, or actually work in marketing to be a Marketer. These are personality types, not job titles.)

Typically the process of writing Web copy is a political struggle between the Marketers and the Lawyers. The Marketers' first draft usually reads something like this:

OurProduct is not just easy to use, inexpensively priced, and 100% safe and effective; it will also whiten your teeth, condition your hair, and make you 3 times more attractive to the opposite sex!

… while the Lawyers' first draft usually reads like this:

We're pretty sure that OurProduct won't hurt you, if you read the instructions and use it as intended. But things happen, you know? We tried to test it as thoroughly as we could but there's always the chance we missed something. Are you sure you wouldn't rather just go watch a TV show instead? 

The battle that ensues is over exactly where between these two extremes the final draft will fall.

What struck me about the Alli page is that it acknowleges things that no Marketer would ever voluntarily acknowledge. Things like Alli will cause explosive, uncontrollable diarrhea — though they use prettier words than that, that's the essential message. (They recommend that you bring a change of clothes to work, for Pete's sake!)

There's really only two reasons why something like that would be mentioned: either the Lawyers at GlaxoSmithKline (the makers of Alli) are all powerful and the Marketers are serfs, or the circumstances described are so common that there's no way the Marketers could ever justify leaving them out. So common, in fact, that they can't even hide them in the fine print; they have to put them right up in the main copy.

If the Marketers at Glaxo were that weak, we wouldn't see sites like this at all. So the only logical conclusion is that a whole lot of Glaxo's test subjects for Alli had a whole lot of pretty grody "accidents".

Which raises the obvious question: why the hell would you take a pill that flat out promised you repeated incidents of explosive diarrhea? Is that (not to mention the $60/month cost of Alli) really preferable to going to the gym a couple of times a week?

I guess we're about to find out!



June 25, 2007
12:01 am

AFAIK, all statements like that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. So they have had to pass on all that language.
This may mean that things are as common as you fear or that there were forty fatties who thought it was a license to eat chips with no complications and ate twice their normal consumption in chips (which would already kill a goat) out of a thousand people and the FDA browbeat them into it.
The warnings, interestingly, are nearly the same as for Olestra. I have eaten products with Olestra and found them not to cause anything like it.
But oy, they should put those warnings on bananas.


June 25, 2007
12:43 am

It’s not really so much explosive diarrhea that leads to the suggestion of “bringing a change of clothes to work”, it’s the risk (and likelihood of) anal leakage of oil, which is completely uncontrollable once it starts. Remember Olestra/Olean? Same deal. It works much like the biliopancreatic diversion with duodenal switch gastric bypass surgery, which can cause the same effects. It’s pretty gross, and unlike explosive diarrhea, you don’t get much advance warning that it’s going to happen. If you ask me how I know this, I will feign ignorance. :)

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