Sunday, January 18, 2004

When I first visited the States a decade ago I was entranced and exhilarated by how different it seemed from the country I’d grown up in. The films on show at the cinemas were six months ahead of the ones back home, the newspapers and magazines seemed to report a world very different to the one I lived in -- even the choices on offer at the corner sandwich store left my head reeling.

I remember visiting Boston in the early 1990s. Back then, I was happy to spend days just walking the streets, soaking in the sights, smells and accents of a country I’d only experienced through TV and the movies. One souvenir of the trip I took home with me – and still have – was an insulated coffee cup from Starbucks. For me, Starbucks represented everything that was different between the US and Britain; exotic coffees sold in glistening chrome and wood cafes and served by baristas with plastic smiles epitomised everything that was great about the USA.

Now, just ten years later, there’s a Starbucks on every corner in London. They’re about as exotic as a wet Sunday in January (although the service in the branches around Dupont Circle, where I’m staying for the during of my visit to DC, is still light years ahead of those on Ealing Broadway).

But as the globalised and interconnected world (have I been reading too much Thomas Friedman?) becomes more homogenised there are still some things that make me realise the Transatlantic gap hasn’t narrowed completely.

Although a TV viewer can watch re-runs of Friends or the Sopranos in Washington or Walsall, one thing we’re not allowed (yet) in the UK is adverts for prescription medicines. I’ve been amazed and appalled in equal measure by the way Big Pharma peddles its wares in the US.

The media here treats anti-depressants, cancer drugs and impotence medication as though they were any other fast moving consumer goods. The voiceovers on the TV ads even make the side effects sound almost desirable, as they warn of “possible dizziness, fainting, insomnia, dry mouth, and irritability” in honeyed tones.

My favourite advert so far is for the dementia drug Aricept. It shows a soft-focused pensioner (sorry….senior) spending quality time in the park with his grandson. The ad makes senility seem like a trifling challenge to be overcome, like a nasty case of the flu, rather than a devastating neurological condition. Madison Avenue has managed to make Alzheimer’s Disease seem desirable. Now that’s a tough sell.


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