Psychology of Abilify Commercials


The psychology used to make Abilify commercials effective marketing tools is rather remarkable.  The goals for the advertisement are to generate a positive feeling towards the product in the consumer, minimize the effect of negative connotations, and ultimately sell the product.  In this series of commercials, Abilify is being marketed as an additional drug that existing users of antidepressants can take to enhance the effectiveness of the primary drug.  The process begins with the choice of an animated commercial with a very soft color palette.  The pastel colors used in the commercial serve to create a subtle undertone of calmness.  All of the colors are secondary colors rather than primary colors, which are meant to illicit both attention and emotion in the viewer.  The soft colors are in contrast to the primary colors used in most regular programming, which makes the commercial stand out in the broadcast.  In addition, secondary colors also create an emotional state in the viewer that makes the message of the commercial more effective.

The choice of a female narrator serves two purposes.  The majority of antidepressants are prescribed for female patients.  Some estimates claim that 1 in 5 women take an antidepressant.  In addition to marketing the product to the largest consumer base, a female narrator also touches on deep cultural biases concerning the role of women in society.  The traditional role of women in society is as protector and nurturer.  A female narrator touches on these biases to create a sense of safety in the viewer.  The intention is that this sense of safety will be transferred to the product in the mind of the viewer.

Anthropomorphizing depression serves several purposes in the commercials.  Creating a character for depression gives the viewer a way to focus their attention on depression, which is essentially a feeling that normally can’t be easily described.  It also removes depression from the main character, creating the idea that the protector/nurturer is being assailed by an external force.  Using depression as an external force, rather than an internal emotional state, gives the viewer a more concrete focus.  It also reinforces the struggle with depression visually as well as through dialog.  The narrator struggles with this external representation several times in the commercial.  After fighting the depression character, the narrator eventually succumbs, which sets the stage for the authority figure to enter the story.

As the narrator struggles to overcome her depression, a doctor comes and pulls her out of her pit.  Having the doctor save the patient serves to establish him/her as a protective figure and a source of relief for the problems that the narrator is having.  The doctor is also used to discuss the side effects of the drug.  When the doctor discusses side effects, s/he doesn’t do it personally.  Instead, the doctor uses a movie within the cartoon to list side effects.  This serves to remove the side effects from being a primary topic in the commercial.  All of the positive effects of the drug are delivered visually through the cartoon and through direct narration.  Side effects are delivered through a secondary image of the doctor which the doctor, narrator, and depression character watch.  This puts the positive and negative effects of the drug into different categories of awareness for the viewer.  The positive effects are made to be more prominent than the side effects, and minimizes the idea of side effects for the consumer.

This framework is used in several Abilify commercials.  The characters and dialog change, but the essential motif remains the same.  The same psychological methods are used.  It’s not manipulation, per see, but it is carefully designed to create emotion in the viewer rather than facilitate critical thinking.  That is the goal of all advertising, of course.  The difference in this case is that anti psychotics like Abilify were not intended to be used as mild boosters for other antidepressants.  Instead, they were intended to treat chronic and untreatable psychosis.  The way that the effects and side effects of these drugs are trivialized through these commercials is troubling to me.  Instead of prompting a serious discussion between patient and doctor over appropriate treatments, these commercials encourage patients to ask for a specific drug without really understanding the possible effects, positive or negative, of taking it.

Culturally Biased Bottom Up Processing

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Bottom Up Processing describes the process that our brains use to react to sudden stimuli.  When you suddenly hear a doorbell or alarm clock in a commercial and pay attention, that’s bottom up processing.  By using the most widely distributed doorbell tone, the advertising company can almost guarantee that it will affect everyone.  Bottom up processing is a hold over from the time when we had more primitive brains.  When we perceive a threat or a large stimulus input, the primitive part of our brains responds by flooding the brain with neural transmitters and adrenaline.  It’s a very crude way of dealing with threats, and it has some implications for us, now that we have more advanced brains.  An analogy would be opening a newer document with an old word processor.  The information is included, but it comes with a lot of other garbage that has to be sorted through.  The effect of flooding the decision making parts of our brains with adrenaline and transmitting chemicals is to amplify every thought.  Notions that would normally seem ridiculous get the same credence in our minds as our regular, rational, thoughts.

I think that this psychology plays into the phenomenon of Suicide by cop.  The perpetrator is in a temporary, heightened mental state where irrational thoughts of suicide begin to take on the guise of normal, rational thought.  The conscious part of our minds that makes decisions is overwhelmed by the power of these thoughts.  Each thought is powered and amplified to the point where it dominates the conscious mind.  In normal thinking, irrational thoughts sometime float to the surface, but are dismissed or used as starting points to come to a rational decision.  An auto worker who is laid off may ponder a violent hostage situation, but wind up picketing in front of the plant as a rational alternative.  In bottom up processing, the give and take that sorts through irrational thoughts to reach an acceptable conclusion is short circuited, and a normally stable personality may attack police.

Fight or Flight is just the most conspicuous example of bottom up processing.  We experience it in smaller ways every day.  Like the doorbell example, our thoughts, and the weight we give to each one, can be affected by outside stimuli.  After a person is in a heightened sense of awareness, injecting a thought and having it remain important in the mind of the viewer is relatively easy.  The nature of the stimulus determines which set of culture touchstones you’ll be tapping into.  Fed Ex uses bright primary or secondary colors in their logo as the bottom up trigger.  Then they inject the thought of movement by creating an arrow between the E and X.  It’s a mostly harmless use of bottom up processing to promote a brand.  The arrow doesn’t have to be a conscious thing for the viewer, it’s included in the small heightening of senses that the viewer experiences.  By triggering bottom up processing, the viewer interprets the whole sign without relying on their normal check and balance system to evaluate what they see.

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In a high school DWI demonstration, two cars are involved in a mock collision.  Rescue personnel cut the car apart with the jaws of life and remove the driver, who has died in this demonstration.  The mother arrives distraught while the driver is put into a hearse and driven away.  The bottom up trigger is cutting apart the cars.  Using the jaws of life is loud and produces a lot of vibrations that the crowd can see, hear, and feel.  The crowd is now in a heightened state, and open to suggestion.  The commentator, who has been narrating the scene, now uses that to drive home the purpose of the demonstration… drive safe after the prom.  By creating a mental state where the crowd doesn’t discriminate between thoughts and gives each one equal weight, the repeated message from the commentator doesn’t compete as much with other thoughts (I’m a safe driver, that wouldn’t happen to me).  The “it won’t happen to me” thought has already been excluded by the choice of the bottom up trigger.  Telling yourself it won’t happen to you is negated by the chopped up car sitting right in front of you.