The Wild and Wacky World of Drug Advertisements

“Instead of the wild and wacky claims from trading cards of years past, we are given ads that are almost too vague, allowing our curiosity to do the talking.”

What does this treat? Everything.

“It restores strength, renews vitality, purifies the blood, regulates the kidneys, liver, and bowels.”

“For the nervous, the debilitated, and the aged.”

Do these sound like descriptions for a juice cleanse or some other health product? Well, you might be surprised to hear that these claims were included in advertisements for over-the-counter medications featuring addictive ingredients such as cocaine and morphine.

Back in the late 1800s, a time where saying yes to drugs might have actually been encouraged, patent medicines promised wild and wonderful cures. These medicines, as opposed to those prescribed by a doctor, were loosely regulated; leading to extravagant claims and dangerous, often unlisted, ingredients. From cure-alls to cough syrup, these medicines promised to treat a variety of ailments for those who could not afford a private doctor’s visit, although they would often do more harm than good.

These bottles have more in common than you may think – both contain lots of alcohol!

Manufacturers used media popular with the public such as newspaper ads and trading cards to advertise their wares, as their sale proved extremely lucrative for the companies making them. These bright and colourful ads used images to draw the illiterate in, while making outrageous claims to those who could read. Trading cards, along with other advertising, are featured in our Quack exhibit and can be found in the Museum’s collections.

Paine’s Celery Compound Trade Card, a good example of using colourful illustrations to draw in the eye (click the image for more info)

Saying “Yes” to drugs: Maybe not a good idea

While they featured some interesting artwork, taking medical advice from these trading cards proved not to be a good idea as many people died or suffered severe side effects from the treatments advertised. One such example is Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, included in the Museum of Healthcare’s Quack exhibit. Meant to soothe teething children, this concoction included lethal doses of alcohol and morphine which eventually lead to the death of thousands of infants; to learn more, read our article! Due to the addictive nature of their ingredients, many also suffered from addiction and withdrawal symptoms after taking these medications.

As a result, legislation was passed in 1908 that banned cocaine and regulated the amount of alcohol, morphine, and other addictive ingredients in these patent medicines. Three years later, in 1911, morphine, cocaine, and other opiates would be prohibited completely; laying the foundation for our modern-day drug laws.

What’s this ad even for?

Nowadays, pharmaceutical advertisements are limited by laws and regulations that limit the advertising of drugs; in fact, the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries without limits on direct-to-consumer advertising. In 1983, the first direct-to-consumer TV ad was aired, starting a trend of eye-catching pharmaceutical commercials shown during US broadcasts such as the Super Bowl.

Here’s a great example of an ad that aired in 2015:

Clear uses and functions are front and center in this drug ad!

While catchy, advertising like this is technically illegal in Canada as the description of the ailment is prohibited in our regulations. However, there is a loophole allowing for a unique type of advertisement to take hold. Instead of the wild and wacky claims from trading cards of years past, we are given ads that are almost too vague, allowing our curiosity to do the talking. Let’s compare this video, meant for broadcast in Canada, to the previous one!

Notice how this ad fails to mention what Viagra is used to treat, how to take it, or even what it does?

Direct-to-consumer advertising in Canada isn’t just limited to catchy videos that leave the viewer with more questions than answers, however. For example, ads like this one have been placed around different Canadian universities – you may have noticed some in the JDUC or the ARC if you go to Queen’s University!

An example of a similar ad at the University of British Columbia. Source: Ubyssey (Link)

But why are these ads so puzzling? Under Canada’s drug advertising laws, there are only two types of direct-to-consumer advertisement allowed for prescription medications – reminder ads (those that remind patients to take their medication) and help-seeking ads (those that encourage patients to ask their doctors for a specific medication). This is an example of the latter.

Despite the limitations of these regulations, these vague ads aren’t as safe as they appear. Due to the heavy restrictions on the claims they can make, the risks of the medications they advertise are often made about as clear as the intentions of these ads. One such example is Diane-35, originally meant as birth control but prescribed only as an acne medication due to its severe risks, which was criticized for its advertising targeting young women as its side effects lead to several deaths in Canada.

From trading cards promising cures to every ailment to Super Bowl and Snapchat ads that leave the viewer guessing, pharmaceutical advertising in Canada has evolved over the years in response to legislation and developments in technology. With the rise of social media, these advertisements will continue to evolve and adapt to legislations and trends in consumer behaviour. Only time will tell if today’s advertisements (and the medications they show) will be viewed similarly to the outrageous claims and questionable ingredients of years past!

About the Author

Katie Lu

(Digital Content Assistant, Summer 2020)

Katie Lu (About the Author 2020)

Katie is a 4th Year Queen’s University student, studying the Computing and the Creative Arts program. Katie, a Information Management Consultant with Kinsight and part of the IT Staff for the Queen’s Alma Mater Society, worked with the Digital Content Assistant for the Museum in Summer 2020. While Katie may have claimed to know not much by way of history of health care and medicine, the wild and wacky artifacts and print materials in the Museum of Health Care’s collection certainly peaked her curiosity!


Direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising in Canada: Permission by default? David M. Gardner, Barbara Mintzes, Aleck Ostry
CMAJ Sep 2003, 169 (5) 425-427; advertising_200601_e_v6.pdf

When good drugs go bad. LA English, PB UBC Press, PP Vancouver [British Columbia] YR 2015, A1 Malleck, Dan

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