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Athletic Prowess and the Doping of Consumers

Worst Pills, Best Pills Newsletter article September, 2008

One of the rewards of being an award-winning athletic performer used to be appearing on a box of Wheaties. Even if we missed the athletes’ moment of glory, we would be reminded of their outstanding feats by eating “the breakfast of champions.” Now, however, this symbol of commercial fame in the pantheon of sports has been replaced by the athlete who peddles pharmaceuticals. Events such as the U.S. Open and the Olympic games, which are watched by millions in this country, are interspersed with advertisements in which well-known athletes sell drugs or medical procedures, the fairly obvious message being that we, too, can be healthier, better-performing individuals if we just take the “right stuff.”

Last month we wrote about the use of Olympic winners Mark Spitz and Nadia Comaneci to advertise their use of Botox, thereby confusing the idea of ‘personal best’ with that of looking good, whatever the consequences. But the phenomenon has reached a new level, with new entrants into the endorsement field and a number of new ads touting the benefits of different products. These suggest that the ideals of “faster, higher, stronger” have been eclipsed by a variety of "enhancements" that are promoted by athletes and foisted on an adoring audience.

Tennis players Lindsay Davenport and Tracy Austin have teamed with Allergan to promote an injectable dermal filler, Juvederm, which is billed as an “anti-aging product.” Although only 31, Davenport, who has won 51 titles in singles and 36 in doubles, is quoted as being a “proponent of healthy aging” who considers the filler “perfect for her.” For her part, Tracy Austin, 45, who won two U.S. Open titles as a teenager, now uses the product to “restore volume” to her face and “fill the parentheses” around her nose and mouth.

And the Olympic competitions are interspersed with an ad showing Shannon Miller, the most decorated American gymnast in history, touting the benefits of Claritin, which allow her “focus on the four-inch balance beam without being distracted by [her] allergies.”

For his part, Tiger Wood sings the praises of Lasik surgery, which has allowed him to correct his vision while avoiding “the hassles of glasses and contact lenses.” And Shaquille O’Neal hawks the benefits of Icy Hot, a topical analgesic pad.

What, you may ask, is different from these athletes peddling these products instead of (or in addition to) Nike sneakers or Coca-Cola? Athletes are celebrities, and they are instantly recognizable by a large segment of the audience. Why not use them as spokespersons for a number of products?

The difference is that these products may not be innocuous, and the combination of athletic performance and commodification of certain substances may lead others to use products of dubious efficacy. And because athletes are considered role models to the young, they are not only peddling wares but also promoting values. Underlying many of the current messages is the idea that you can achieve greater glory (or at least better athletic performance) not just through “practice, practice, practice” but also through products that enhance your capabilities and give you an edge over the competition.

Another difference is that the consumer may not be in position to judge the product. You can try on a pair of Nikes and decide whether or not they work for you, but Claritin is another matter.

Finally, the practice raises a number of ethical questions: Should it be requirement that athletes promote only those products that they themselves use? Should ads include a disclaimer that the product is safe only under certain circumstances? Should drugs be off-limits while other devices are OK? Where do we draw the line between testimonial and unabashed hawking? And why should we give credibility to athletes whose image and expertise goes to the highest bidder? Olympic alchemy means that medals turn into endorsements, which then become marketing gold. It is ironically appropriate that the Olympic logo embodies these interlocking circles, making us read them as: Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh!