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Harvard Health AdWatch: An arthritis ad in 4 parts

Perhaps you’ve grown as weary as I have of repeated arthritis ads. They appear in frequent rotation on television, online, and in magazines, promoting Enbrel, Humira, Otezla, Xeljanz, and others.

If you’ve actually read or listened to these ads, you might have felt perplexed at certain points. Here’s a quick rundown on what they’re saying — and not saying — in one of those ads.

“The clock is ticking”

Part 1: A teakettle whistles on the stove and a disembodied voice speaks as this ad for Humira opens. “This is your wakeup call. If you have moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis, month after month the clock is ticking on irreversible joint damage. Ongoing pain and stiffness are signs of joint erosion.” Three people are shown starting their day in pain: one rubs his knee and grimaces, another has a sore shoulder, and the third, sore hands. Their suffering is clear, and you hear ticking in the background as a digital clock clicks forward one minute.

Part 2: “Humira can help stop the clock.” A garage door opens and out comes the man with the achy knee, now smiling and comfortably walking out into the sunshine as the music swells. “Prescribed for 15 years, Humira targets and blocks a source of inflammation that contributes to joint pain and irreversible damage.”

Part 3: The long list of side effects is voiced while happy scenes and beautiful music distract you: an adorable dog hikes with its once-achy-kneed owner; a young mother drops off her kids with a beaming grandma who previously was wringing her sore hands. “Humira can lower your ability to fight infection. Serious and fatal infections including tuberculosis and cancers, including lymphoma, have happened, as have blood, liver, and nervous system problems, serious allergic reactions, and new or worsening heart failure. Tell your doctor if you’ve been to areas where certain fungal infections are common, and if you’ve had tuberculosis, hepatitis B, are prone to infections, or have flulike symptoms or sores. Don’t start Humira if you have an infection.”

Part 4: The big finish is short and to the point: “Help stop the clock on irreversible joint damage. Talk to your rheumatologist.”

What did the ad get right?

Let’s start with several accurate points:

  • The prolonged morning stiffness depicted at the start is a typical symptom of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It’s so characteristic that it helps doctors make the diagnosis.
  • Humira is a brand name of adalimumab, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and related conditions. It’s often highly effective and has a good safety profile, despite the long disclaimer about side effects.
  • The drug targets inflammation. It does this by blocking tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a substance directly involved in rheumatoid arthritis inflammation. Anti-TNF drugs were first approved by the FDA for rheumatoid arthritis more than 20 years ago. They have revolutionized treatment for this disease.

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Written by Shobha

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