I was at a convenience store the other day buying the usual – beef jerky and Mountain Dew – when I noticed the pen at the checkout counter. The storeowner had Scotch-taped a white plastic spoon to the pen, figuring that customers will be less likely to forgetfully leave with the pen after signing a check or credit card slip. (Unfortunately, the practice doesn’t always work. I know a guy whose glove box is filled with pens and white plastic spoons.)
But the thing that really caught my eye was a logo on the side of the pen: Viagra.
Now, I’m 86 percent certain that Viagra is not available for purchase at your average 7-Eleven (although a Zoloft Slurpee would be an excellent choice prior to bedtime). So how did a pen sporting a Viagra logo find its way to a little store where the pharmaceuticals for sale are mostly Alka-Seltzer and stool softeners? The answer lies in the middle ground between light and shadow, at the signpost up ahead: the Twilight Zone.
By whatever means that convenience store owner acquired it, his Viagra pen has now become a collector’s item. That’s because, as of the first of this new year, drug companies can no longer offer branded goodies to doctors. You’ve seen the stuff sitting around the examination room as you waited to get your blood pressure checked: Lipitor coffee mugs, Ambien tongue depressors, Prozac desk calendars and Boniva paperweights. All of those much-cherished gewgaws, knickknacks and fribbles are passing from the great American scene – at least in the drug business.
I had always believed it would have made more sense for the various drug company trinkets to have tied in more obviously with the products themselves – like, say, a Valium hammock or a Botox no-wrinkle T-shirt. But it’s a moot point now, because the pharmaceutical industry has agreed to a voluntary moratorium on branded tchotchkes. I just wish someone would also agree to a voluntary moratorium on words like tchotchke, where the first letter isn’t even pronounced. So why is it there? Same with pneumonia. Sorry for the digression.
The new drug industry guideline is supposed to counter the suggestion that gifts to doctors might influence them to use certain products more than others. In other words, you don’t want your allergist prescribing Zyrtec instead of Allegra, just because Zyrtec gave him a free Chia nose.
And so, drug rep toys have now gone the way of indoor smoking and Betamax. But the good news is that all those prescription-drug TV commercials will still go on and on. Rest assured; you’ll still be able to see images of moths flying around people sleeping – and men and women sitting in separate outdoor bathtubs watching the setting sun.
Of course, the drug industry is hardly the first to use promotional items, although nobody knows for certain when the idea began. Some say that in this country, it started with commemorative campaign buttons supporting the presidential election of George Washington: “Vote for George Washington for President. He is first in war, first in peace, and first in (continued on other button) …”
But maybe promotional trinkets go even farther back in history. A close study of a European cave drawing from 32,000 years ago might reveal a sketch of a guy wearing a T-shirt: “Shop at Spears and More!”
Today’s NASCAR drivers have branding all over their cars. Maybe ancient racing chariots did, too: “Goodyear Wooden Wheels!” And the kids back then probably showed up at the stadium in droves for “Ben-Hur Bobblehead Day.”
As for the medical industry, they’re going to have to try and carry on without the benefit of free baubles and bric-a-brac. But maybe it’s for the best. A close reading of the original rough draft of Hippocrates’ Oath, written in 420 B.C., shows that he crossed out the line, “I will not accept branded pens or staplers – unless, of course, they’re really cool.”
Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.