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Page last updated at 11:14 GMT, Saturday, 14 June 2008 12:14 UK

The United States of Advertising

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

I have been taking a keen interest in television adverts for indigestion products lately.

TV viewers
Television viewers in the US are exposed to much advertising

This habit more or less coincided with my discovery of beef jerky, an American food whose classiness you can judge from the fact that it is mainly found in petrol stations.

You could make it yourself at home by cutting a tough, thin steak into tiny strips and leaving them on a sunny window ledge to dry when you went away for your summer holiday.

That should give you the very essence of jerky - dry and rubbery at the same time, and chewy - like Bovril-flavoured lino.

I started off munching on slivers of it on long drives through America's far horizons, but now I am perfectly capable of eating my own body weight of the stuff on a trip to the shops.

Advertising standards

As is often the case with addictions, I began dabbling in adverts for indigestion tablets and slowly found myself hooked on the darker, stronger material contained in commercials for prescription drugs.

America is one of only two countries in the world (along with New Zealand) which permit the advertising of drugs that are available solely through your doctor.

Doctor and patient
Prescription drugs are commonly advertised on television in the US

The insidious message is simple; if your doctor is not offering you this drug, maybe you should be asking for it.

Americans do accept advertising in areas where it does not tend to appear elsewhere.

It is not uncommon here for a sports presenter to be required to break away from the main business in hand to draw your attention to the succulence of a sausage or the ruggedness of a truck.

Prescription drugs though are surely different. After all, the whole point of them is that it is not considered safe to let us simply buy them over the counter.

They are so strong or so habit forming that it is up to the doctor to decide that we really need them.

Advertising subtly changes that relationship by sending us in to see the doctor filled with nameless dreads about the symptoms of diseases we might have, and a detailed knowledge of the drugs that might help us.

The TV spots in other words insidiously furnish us with the tools to torture ourselves.

On the occasions when I do lie awake at night these days the floppy, flabby, mis-shapen demons of my own future link hands and dance around my bed

I am happy enough for example, and secretly regard anyone who is happier as slightly mad - but who I am to say that the bottled sunshine of the prescription anti-depressant would not lift my mood a couple of notches further.

I sleep well enough too, but I certainly do not start the day with the radiant lustre of the woman in the sleeping pill advert.

She is perhaps the jolliest person in TV advert land's world of impotence, flatulence and obesity.

On the occasions when I do lie awake at night these days the floppy, flabby, mis-shapen demons of my own future link hands and dance around my bed.

Do I suffer from the curiously named symptoms which would alert me to my serious illnesses?

Straining. Going Too Often. Not going at all. Going when you were not expecting to. Incomplete emptying - which always puts me in mind of an inefficiently run fire drill in a public building, but which of course refers to an altogether different, trouser-dampening reality.

The biggest single market is in drugs that deal with erectile dysfunction. My favourite features a group of men who gather together to play in a band.

Side effects

I think it is meant to show them looking relaxed and happy, but they are such good musicians you cannot help noting that impotence has left them with plenty of time on their hands to practise their instruments.

Television adverts for drugs in the US list possible side effects

The best part of the adverts tends to come towards the end when the law requires the pharmaceutical company to list the possible side effects of the various products.

Sometimes these are spelled out in a warm tone implying this is all a bit of a formality imposed by our fuss-budget of a government.

On other occasions they are rattled out at speeds normally only reached by horse racing commentators in the closing stages of a big race.

The symptoms include coughs and sneezes, runny noses and rashes but there is a more alarming end of the spectrum too where you are solemnly warned of the possibility - presumably small - of suffering a stroke, a heart attack or even death - the last and greatest side-effect of them all.

'Profoundly different'

I think about those adverts - and those side-effects - every time I open a fresh pack of dried beef using my gigantic, jerky-reinforced arms.

They are a daily reminder of the many ways in which America - superficially so similar to Western Europe - is really profoundly different.

Those adverts with their sure sense of how to play on our doubts and insecurities are a symptom of the restless energy of American capitalism and of the belief that it can apply to issues of health and happiness just as readily as it can apply to polish or pet food.

The downside of the system for me? Well, I have rampant, raging hypochondria these days to add to my chronic, jerky-induced indigestion.

And the upside? Well, there is bound to be something I can take for it.

If I can just manage to plant myself in front of the television until an advert for the tablets I am waiting for eventually pops up.

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday 14 June, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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