Genuine representation is needed. Sometimes commercials miss the mark, but things are changing.
One of the things I am passionate about as an arthritis advocate is authentic representation. But for the last 19 years, I’ve rarely seen this.
I’ve noticed that commercials can sometimes be problematic — especially those from pharmaceutical companies.
Before my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis, I saw these commercials, but I was ignorant of the realities of life with arthritis. These advertisements fed me information that I now know to be one-sided and misleading.
I believe this is a big reason why people hear the word “arthritis” and don’t take it as seriously as some other conditions, such as cancer.
Fast-forward a few years to after my diagnosis, and my reaction to these commercials was completely different. I was no longer standing on the side of ignorance or naivety.
The messaging and representation in the commercials now meant something far deeper to me. They were supposed to reflect who I was as a person living with the condition. But I was nowhere to be seen.
The actors tended to be white and older. None of them used mobility aids or assistive devices, and they had no visible signs of the disease, such as scars or deformities. I assumed none of the actors were actually living with arthritis because they looked nothing like me, nor like my life with arthritis.
I applaud efforts to show the invisible nature of arthritis. But where was the other side of the story that millions of people live with every day?
Each commercial I came across focused on a 1950s picture-perfect, picket-fence image of what living with arthritis should look like. But to me, it just looked like life without arthritis.
They showed a sometimes-unrealistic view of what people could accomplish day to day. It was as if taking some medication would suddenly give you a burst of energy to climb to the top of a mountain or do your daily chores with ease.
While that may be the case for some people, others might need extra assistance to make these tasks easier. These commercials made me feel like living with visible signs of arthritis and needing to use assistive devices was a failure.
The most alarming and jarring aspect was the laundry list of side effects.
While the companies and commercials might be required to share this information and might have good intentions, the simple act of listing side effects can do more harm than good. It seems counterproductive because a lot of people in the arthritis community are hesitant or scared to begin treatment for this very reason.
The commercials didn’t show a true experience of using a medication, of questioning whether a new symptom might be a side effect. The true lived reality wasn’t put into perspective. Instead, the side effects remained erroneous to the picture-perfect life hoping to be attained.
As my disease progressed, I noticed more and more what these commercials lacked. They didn’t have any depth and could not connect with viewers in a real way.
Since I received my diagnosis, things have changed and great strides have been made for better representation.
The television commercials below are past and present examples of how the media has moved from a more secluded to a more inclusive space. They are the ones that have made a significant impact on me.
I remember seeing this Remicade commercial a few years before my diagnosis.
As in many other commercials at this time, the main actress was middle-aged and white. I remember wondering whether arthritis was a condition only for those types of people.
The commercial shows a woman having a flashback of her childhood without illness, when everything was carefree and easy. It then switches to the actress in the present day, clearly depressed, feeling helpless and overwhelmed.
These are all true emotions when living with a chronic illness, but the commercial made it seem like they should be banished with the use of Remicade.
But then the potential side effects are listed. I remember how jarring it felt to hear a list of everything that could go wrong while imagery of a family enjoying their time at the beach was playing.
The commercial glossed over so many nuances of living with RA and using medications, making it seem like there should be one quick solution that could make everything better. It missed the mark by not offering viewers a true experience.
The last several years have seen an increase in diversity and inclusion in commercials.
Most importantly, huge strides have been made to include the patient voice. Unlike the Remicade commercial, which had only some relatable moments, this Orencia commercial features the real story of a patient.
We hear from a woman named Rebecca. While it features just a snippet of her story, it shows the patient starting to have a voice of her own.
This authenticity and relatability is what patients need.
This Johns Hopkins Rheumatology infomercial is about getting started on methotrexate and everything you should know about it. As someone who feared methotrexate, I would have found this infomercial helpful before I started the medication in 2015.
I really liked the delivery, as they shared details in a conversational style. It was as if a trusted confidant was telling you about this medication and why it was important.
Methotrexate is a medication used to treat cancer, and many people fear it. To quote the infomercial, “When people first hear about methotrexate, they are concerned because this medication is also used to treat some forms of cancer. It’s very important to remember the doses that rheumatologists use are hundreds of times smaller than the doses used for cancer.”
It goes on to give people comfort about the side effects and how they aren’t as common with the lower doses used for RA.
The infomercial also explains that methotrexate has been used to treat autoimmune conditions since the 1980s, so there is a lot of research about it. When considering treatment options, people want to know how much research has gone into a medication and how safe and effective it is.
There was a balance and transparency to the information being shared, and it made me feel seen. The complexities of using medication weren’t dismissed but instead discussed openly.
When I received my diagnosis at age 18, I knew nobody with arthritis. This Arthritis Ireland juvenile arthritis campaign video is one of my favorites because it shows teenagers at a school dance having fun. It has a sense of innocence to it, and it took me back to my school days, remembering how I, too, had school dances while dealing with symptoms.
I felt really seen when I saw this, even if it was decades later.
The commercial is really effective at showing the invisible versus visible signs of the disease. When people are dancing, different body parts light up to show where they may be experiencing symptoms. Even if a kid is dancing and looks happy on the outside, they may be dealing with joint damage and pain on the inside.
By showing more than one teenager who might live with arthritis at the dance, this commercial made me feel less alone.
RA representation in commercials has had a big impact on me. I felt unseen for so long.
Patient voices, infomercials with greater medication transparency, and more inclusive representation of different cultures and ages have all been huge steps that have made me feel more seen and less alone.
I hope things will only get better for arthritis representation across all media outputs and opportunities, including books, movies, modeling, and television shows.
It’s important to remember that positive change has been made possible by those who have spoken up against misrepresentation. Sharing our stories, using our voices, and coming together as a community drives these types of changes forward.
I recently wrote a book that features the stories of 119 people with arthritis exactly for this purpose.
The more we keep talking, the more those in positions of power will have no choice but to stop, listen, and help facilitate change. Hopefully, this will lead to more people feeling seen, heard, and validated.
Medically reviewed on September 18, 2023
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