“You might want to see this,” my husband said.
I looked up from my iPad. He was right, it caught my attention. I watched one person, then two cross the screen. Both people using white canes with confidence. It wasn’t part of the Elementary episode we watched–the lighting and location wasn’t like the brownstone/city sets on the detective program. I listened to the narration for a few seconds and disappointment brewed–this was some kind of an ad. But it wasn’t filled with that earnest, local TV messaging, it was polished and professional and slick.
I won’t lie. It was neat to see portrayals of people of different ages and races and occupations using white canes and guide dogs as they went about their days. Regular people doing regular things. Because we do. (Which makes me sad to note that NBC announced it’s cancelling Growing Up Fisher. Boo, NBC. Boo.)
The enchantment ended when I understood it was a campaign to raise awareness about a sleep disorder funded by a drug company. I’m used to being bombarded with drug commercials for cholesterol, diabetes, erectile dysfunction–basically medications for people of a certain age. (I’m in my early thirties. Must tell you something about the TV shows I watch.) But an ad for people who don’t perceive light and have circadian rhythm disorder which leads to sleep issues catches me off guard. That’s pretty specific. We don’t have a cable TV package, we’re off the grid using a digital antenna, but it felt like somehow, this ad was on our TV because of me and my eyes.
Is Elementary a program known for better than average descriptive dialogue? The show uses sharp design elements and is full of gestures, but I’m drawn to the witty banter and mystery plots. As I sat on the couch, I wanted to know the commercial’s target audience.
It aired in the evening plus it mentioned something about insomnia. Hello, people with sleep issues will be up later. When the commercial started doing that general symptoms narration over pleasant visuals that pharmaceutical ads love to create, I was back to reality, cutting the imaginary line from my TV viewing habits as a visually impaired person to advertising and instead focused on the 10 pm time slot. The later I stay up, it’s more likely I will encounter an ad for sleep aids. Or blender infomercials. Don’t you love those?
I sleuthed some clues after the commercial ended. Less than 100,000 people who are blind are estimated to be diagnosed with this circadian rhythm sleep disorder. The incidence in people who are sighted is rare. Yet, hearing the commercial mention people struggling to sleep at night and stay awake during the day, it sure generalizes the population fighting this sleep disorder. Would sighted people suffering from insomnia try to get a prescription?
This sniffs of the possibility of off-label drug use aka using a drug for non-intended uses. Drug companies aren’t in the business to cater to small, niche populations. The money is in the numbers: people requiring long-term maintenance medications equal consistent sales. Treatments over cures. Big dollars.
You can’t sleep? The plot thickens with people like you. The CDC says 50 to 70 million Americans can’t sleep well. The pieces of the puzzle fell together. I can’t help but be cynical. A drug for blind people suffering from circadian rhythm disorder could conceivably catapult into a sleep aid for millions of people. Ah-ha. We’re always looking for magic beans and the Mad Men know it. I just wish Big Pharma wouldn’t act as if it cares primarily about a little fish when a line-snapper swims below the surface in the sea of consumers.
Sweet (medicated) dreams, my dear Watsons.
For more information, check out this article from the AFB’s Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness about the FDA’s approval of a drug for sleep disorders in blind adults.
Also, an older article in 2012 from the NFB’s Braille Monitor giving information about circadian rhythm disorder and volunteer participation in a research survey.