When Branding Is Art

October 15, 2007

Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

The direct-to-consumer marketing campaign for havidol, a drug for dysphoric social attention consumption deficit anxiety disorder, is drawing lots of public reaction. (but neither the drug nor the disease is real.)

WAITING for a flight at the Los Angeles airport, Australian artist Justine Cooper viewed her first direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertisement while watching the news on TV. Actually, she saw six ads, one after another, advertising drugs for allergies, insomnia, depression, and erectile dysfunction.

DTC advertising is not allowed in Australia, or indeed in any countries except the United States and New Zealand. And while the content of the ads didn't interest Cooper (she didn't have any of the diseases), she was seduced by their visual beauty. She was also amazed by the very concept of marketing medicines on television, the same way you would shill beer or automobiles, by appealing to a consumer's perceived need and desire.

Anyone else would have left it at that, caught her flight, and thought no more about it. But Cooper is an artist—and not just any artist: Her particular interest is the intersection between culture, science, and medicine. She investigates it using such interdisciplinary means as animation, video installation, and photography, as well as medical imaging technologies like MRI DNA sequencing and ultrasound.

"I've never been the kind of artist who sits in a studio and paints a canvas," says Cooper, whose work is internationally exhibited and held in private and public collections, including those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, and the Australian Center for the Moving Image. Cooper was also awarded the first artist-in-residence at New York's Museum of Natural History. She spent a year exploring the museum's back passageways, storage rooms, and specimen cases, where the majority of the museum's curious collection is stored, documenting what she saw using a wooden 4-by-5 camera from 1910 that belonged to the museum.

Photographs on both pages: Cooper's promotional materials and advertisements for havidol designed for specific magazines.

Inspired by the DTC ads, Cooper set about creating her own fictional marketing campaign: The launch of a made-up lifestyle drug called HAVIDOL (sounds like: have it all) to treat a made-up disease—dysphoric social attention consumption deficit anxiety disorder (DSACDAD). The drug's tagline is "When More Is Not Enough."

Part parody, part fantasy, Cooper's piece is extensive, detailed, and disorientingly real. It represents every stage and element of a drug's marketing process, including: a pill and logo design; promotional and supporting materials; TV spots; and an interactive Web site (www.havidol.com) complete with a quiz, testimonials, videos, and an online store that sells branded T-shirts and jackets.

BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Art can be baffling, even maddening. Unlike advertising, its purpose is not to sell, provide answers, or tell us what to think. Viewers are left to create their own relationship to a given piece. It's not always an easy or comfortable place to be, especially with contemporary art.

Cooper's HAVIDOL piece can be especially unsettling. Given its uncanny resemblance to a real pharmaceutical marketing campaign for a lifestyle drug, it confounded some viewers at the show's opening last winter at the Daneyal Mahmood Gallery in New York City. The entire marketing campaign was displayed along with bowls filled with blue candy to look like HAVIDOL pills.

"Even though it was an opening in an art gallery, some people thought they were at a pharmaceutical party," says gallery owner Daneyal Mahmood. "And a few people were offended because they actually believed they had the symptoms of DSACDAD. They thought the show was making fun of them."

Was this Cooper's intent? Is her piece simply a spoof on our consumer marketing society and our seemingly innate belief that a pill can fulfill us, make us well—even perfect? Or is it like Andy Warhol and his Campbell soup can paintings, a representation of something so familiar we are forced to look at the thing itself—as well as art, society, and ourselves—anew?

Seeking illumination, Pharmaceutical Executive called up Justine Cooper and asked her to tell us about the HAVIDOL marketing piece in her own words.

What do you expect viewers to take away from the work?

It was never meant to be an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry. I saw it more as a subtle look at the way drugs, marketing, and the consumer all kind of interact to create the atmosphere we have today. It's about the way we think about well-being and about what is a disease and what isn't.

Why HAVIDOL?

I was interested in where the pressure points were for people and their sensitivities. I wanted to make a drug that wasn't about having lifesaving qualities so much as lifestyle-saving qualities; a drug that essentially helps you to consume more, both materialistically and personally. A drug that helps you to be brighter, to be more beautiful, to be more interesting, to be...well, more. So, I was interested in a drug that would appeal to a lot of people. Even me!

How did you go about actually choosing the disease?

I polled people I knew. I asked them what they would like a drug for that didn't already exist. Some people wanted frontal lobe enhancers, smart drugs, which I think actually will be coming down the pipeline pretty soon. Other people wanted to be able to talk to their pets. And so while that was maybe too narrow a market for me, I did make it a side effect of HAVIDOL—interspecies communication. HAVIDOL is such an exemplary kind of drug, even the side effects are ambiguous: Is talking to your pets a good thing or a bad thing?

Visiting the drug's Web site (www.havidol.com) is a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland experience: At first you think you've landed on a pharma site advertising a new drug, but then you look a little closer, and you realize none of it is real. Then it's really quite funny.

I wanted to use humor to a certain degree. I think it's a more persuasive way of talking about complicated or difficult things. But I didn't want it to be so funny that the humor was the only aspect people latched onto. There's a whole genre of comedy that does spoofs on drugs. But it's over in a minute. You don't think about it much afterwards. I was looking for something that was a little subtler and a little more ambiguous, so the line between fact and fiction moved on you.

What has been the reaction overall?

Some people immediately know it is a parody; other people realize it later. On the Web site, especially, there's a lot of content, and they're happy to keep reading.

What makes it so disorienting is the detail and breath of the piece. Why did you make it so complete?

It started out just being three television ads, because that was the initial idea. And then I realized to be a really successful marketing campaign, you'd need a Web site, because it's so much more efficient. It reaches so many more people seeking information. And the cost is so much less to produce a Web site than to produce TV ads or broadcast them. I started mimicking the way I imagined Madison Avenue thinks for these campaigns. If I were making HAVIDOL: Part Two, I'd have a patient-advocacy site.

How many years did it take to complete?

I had the initial idea about three years ago, and then I had applied for funding from the Australia Council, the Greenwall Foundation in New York, and the New York State

Council for the Art. I knew that it must be a relatively good idea when I got funding from all those places. The funders could picture it; it was viable. The idea must be at the forefront of people's minds.

How did you pitch it as a grant proposal?

I didn't have a name for the drug then. I was only making a lifestyle pharmaceutical and a marketing campaign for it. And then after I got the funding, I kept adding more components to the marketing campaign.

It seems like there's not just one way of receiving the work.

Well, exactly. It was not meant to be preaching some higher ground. I think one of the reasons it was successful is that we all identify with having certain symptoms of dysphoric social attention consumption deficit anxiety disorder. So maybe that's what people come away with, that it is simply a sort of an examination of their own choices and their own lifestyle. I guess my hope would be that maybe they'd feel content with what they actually have.

Instead of taking a drug for happiness?

HAVIDOL isn't like a happy pill, really. It's so you can cope with—what does the woman say in the ad?—"our high-paced 24-hour excessive consumer culture." It's not a drug for depression. It is a drug to make it easier and to make things somehow manageable, and also to make you feel like you're living more fully.

The whole piece, all its elements, is really gorgeous. Was that intentional?

It had to be seductive—otherwise, it fails.

Did it seduce you in the making? Was it fun to do?

Oh, it was so much fun to make because it wasn't just me, it was collaborative. As an artist, I'm really more of an editor. Filtering through all the possibilities and picking ones that work together. And I don't think I work particularly fast, but I think I'm detailed. So I really enjoyed working with all the different people, having the discussions.

The photographs you did at the Natural History Museum seem very different.

Aesthetically, it is entirely different. But the thread that binds them is the idea of desire. With the museum photos, you're looking at institutional desire and the desire of science to kind of place this veil of rationalism over a pretty messy, sublime kind of world.

HAVIDOL is a much more cultural, social idea about desire and about what we want and why we want it. My belief is that we don't just want these things because we're told to want them. It's as if we're almost biologically built to desire to be better—that it's some kind of survival mechanism. And the fact that HAVIDOL can kind of promise to deliver that is tapping into not just the glossiness of the pharmaceutical advertisements, but almost an innate genetic determinism to excel.

Were the museum photographs done before HAVIDOL?

Yes, pre-HAVIDOL. I've actually become less science-y almost. HAVIDOL was almost like stepping outside of the institution.

Into society?

Yes, I had my coming out.

All because you sat in an airport and saw direct-to-consumer advertisements for drugs?

I guess I should have looked at TV much sooner.

Justine Cooper's work is represented by the Daneyal Mahmood Gallery. For more information about the artist or the gallery, contact info@daneyalmahmood.com