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The New York Times
MARCH 21, 2005
Lorraine Bracco, who plays Dr. Jennifer Melfi on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” has previously mentioned her depression, but she is now disclosing details about her history with the illness. And, like many other celebrities, she is doing so under a contract with a drug company.
Last week, Pfizer, which makes the antidepressant Zoloft, introduced a Web site featuring Ms. Bracco, who has also discussed her illness in a series of media interviews with People magazine and the Associated Press, among others. Television commercials will soon feature Ms. Bracco, who has said she was treated with Zoloft during her illness. Pfizer declined to disclose how much the company is paying for her endorsement.
Ms. Bracco joins a chorus of actors, singers and athletes with such deals. In the last year alone, folk singer Shawn Colvin has talked about mental illness in a national education campaign sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer of the antidepressants Wellbutrin and Paxil. A former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, has ventured across the country on “The Terry Bradshaw Depression Tour,” also sponsored by Glaxo.
Delta Burke, meanwhile, was the celebrity spokeswoman for Go On and Live, a campaign promoting Wyeth’s drug Effexor XR. Ms. Burke’s deal with Wyeth ended last summer. Glaxo has tailored its celebrity antidepressant marketing to gay consumers with presentations by the athlete Greg Louganis and the actor Chad Allen.
Most of the celebrity antidepressant promotions are unbranded, meaning the television commercials do not mention the product by name, but often refer consumers to a Web site that does. A Pfizer spokeswoman, An Phan, said that Ms. Bracco’s television ads would not mention Zoloft.
Such campaigns are similar to pitches for drugs to treat erectile dysfunction, also a sensitive topic, said Mark Bard of Manhattan Research, a health care marketing firm.
“It’s more like, ‘Let’s open the discussion,”‘ Mr. Bard said. “You don’t know Lorraine Bracco personally, but you feel you can identify with her more than just a generic actor that comes on the screen.”
With more than $10 billion in annual sales in the United States, antidepressants are just below cholesterol-lowering drugs and stomach acid reducers in total sales. The soft-sell campaigns are designed to cast the net even wider.
A recent study by two academic researchers, Julie M. Donohue of the University of Pittsburgh and Ernst R. Berndt of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that antidepressant marketing to consumers increases the frequency the drugs are prescribed, but does not affect which brand is chosen.
David G. Fassler, a psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., and a trustee of the American Psychiatric Association, said he supported the use of public figures to increase awareness of mental illness.
“I’ll be happy if the ads don’t mention a specific medication,” said Mr. Fassler, who also said he believes selecting drugs should be the role of a physician.
While there is little new about celebrities endorsing drugs, the antidepressant plugs have drawn criticism. Terry Bradshaw cancelled an appearance last year in Chattanooga, Tenn., after an advocacy group concerned about the side effects of antidepressants threatened to stage a protest.
Last year, the Food and Drug Administration warned doctors that patients taking antidepressants should be monitored for increased depression and suicidal thoughts, and asked manufacturers to revise warning labels.
Ms. Bracco, who could not be reached for comment, has said her depression followed a series of setbacks during the 1990’s, including her separation from the actor Harvey Keitel and her daughter’s diagnosis with rheumatoid arthritis.