Press muse – Moving news and pushing pills

A while ago, I noted the inappropriate use of a Habbo survey as a basis for drawing scientific conclusions on ills of computer game addiction. In particular, I insinuated that Habbo, an online social networking site, were delighted recipients of gratuitous and undeserved publicity.

Perhaps not ‘undeserved’; Sulake, the online entertainment firm behind Habbo, have clearly been working hard to spread its name, and to good effect. In the 8 December edition of Today, Neo Chai Chin suggested that Singaporean youth may be more environmentally aware than most people give them credit for. And as you may have guessed by now, this observation came from a survey of youth aged 12 to 18 conducted on Habbo.

To Neo’s credit, she carefully shied away from drawing definitive conclusions from the survey results. Her lede didn’t exactly exude confidence:

“If the findings of the latest survey by a teenage-centric company are an indication, young Singaporeans are keeping abreast of developments at the ongoing Copenhagen climate change conference via the media.”

Unlike the Straits Times, which placed great faith in another Habbo poll, Today was not quite as convinced and laudably so.

But I digress. The real issue here is the consummate ease with which Sulake inserts its brand into our newspapers. By offering methodologically dubious surveys with nominally interesting insights, the company gets a free pass from newsroom editors. And they aren’t the only corporate entities reaping such benefits.

Orchard Road shopping malls had it even easier with the Straits Times. On 18 December the winners of the Christmas Best Dressed Building contest received a gratuitous two-page splash, complete with flattering photos and beaming reviews. How meekly the broadsheet succumbed, snapping enthusiastically onto a pseudo-event on offer from the Singapore Tourism Board and the Orchard Road Business Association. A slow news day perhaps.

Even as I write, the ‘news’ of the 50th anniversary of the invention of Bubble Wrap is receiving plenty of attention from Channel News Asia and half the English-language news media. All suckered by a patently contrived PR-designed pseudo-event. Depressingly, the tactic works like a charm.

Nonetheless, such methods are relatively benign in the sense that they are rather visible. Discerning readers ought to detect them reasonably easily; like how you’d sneer haughtily when you spot the Louis Vuitton hanging off Carrie Bradshaw, or whilst playing as Old Snake pick up an iPod mid-game to fiddle with the background music. This subliminal advertising, brand integration, or whatever you’d call it, is thoroughly ubiquitous.

In these instances corporate bigwigs had parted with good money, so by and large we tend to let it slide and docilely accept the (c)overt persuasions. As for soft selling within the guise of news however, PR and corporate interests can work its magic in more subtle and insidious ways.

Last month, the Asia Pacific Society for Sexual Medicine convened for their twelfth biennial meeting in Singapore. In the midst of their schedule, four participants – all experts in their respective fields – took time off to meet members of the press in a fancy up-market five-star hotel.

Their subject – male readers may wish to look away now – was premature ejaculation. They reported that, citing the recent Asia Pacific Premature Ejaculation Prevalence and Attitude (AP PEPA) Study, about 31 per cent of Asian men could be suffering from PE. Or, as AsiaOne helpfully pointed out, one in three Singaporean men might be coming too fast.

Actually, that isn’t quite accurate. According to the study, 16 per cent of 4,997 respondents were diagnosed with PE through the PE assessment tool, while another 15 per cent were diagnosed as having probable PE. Add the two together and you get 31 per cent. Cue PR and journalistic input – rounding the figure up to get one-third and a more eye-catching headline.

Consider something else. Despite the edgy headlines, the study did not involve any Singaporeans. Zilch. Zero. Zip. Rather, the men surveyed included 1,019 from Australia and New Zealand, 600 from China, 204 from Hong Kong, 207 from Indonesia, 1,167 from South Korea, 400 from Malaysia, 1,000 from Taiwan, 200 from Thailand and 200 from the Philippines.

Cheryl Lim, reporting for My Paper, got around this by quoting Associate Professor George Lee Eng Geap:

Although the poll did not include Singapore, Prof Lee, who is part of the study’s steering committee, said: “We believe the results to be applicable to Singapore, because a similar study done in Europe in 2007 also showed a similar result. PE is a problem that cuts across ethnicity and age groups.”

That is if 22.7 per cent is in any way similar to 31 per cent, and if the United States is in Europe. The first PEPA study, which Professor Lee cited, involved men from a mere three countries and the results aren’t even remotely comparable with that of the Asia Pacific study; 24 per cent in the US, 20.3 per cent in Germany, and 20 per cent in Italy.

Professor Lee himself clarified at the workshop that the great variance in the data could be due to differences in social sensibilities and willingness across cultures to report sexual health conditions truthfully. How these numbers collectively suggest a possible 33.3 per cent PE prevalence rate amongst Singaporean men therefore is a mystery.

Notwithstanding flagrant extrapolations by journalists (as illustrated previously) and the limitations in the study’s methodology (the nature of the condition means studies tend to rely on self-reporting, which cannot exclude for example the influence of cultural and sociological factors on survey results; something the physicians themselves acknowledged), there is yet something else worth a deeper look at.

Particularly intriguing is why and how four eminent physicians would have come together, at some cost, to speak at a media workshop about PE.

The answer was in the fine print. The press release disclosed that the workshop had been sponsored by Janssen-Cilag, a research-based pharmaceutical company, and that the four experts are in fact paid consultants for that firm. Better yet, the AP PEPA study itself is funded by Janssen-Cilag.

Very curious indeed. Why is Janssen-Cilag so interested in educating the media and thereby raising public awareness about PE? Lim provides an unwitting hint in her report:

“There may be a solution: American company Janssen-Cilag has recently submitted its medication, Dapoxetine, to the health authorities here for review.”

What she might have added, in the interest of disclosure, is that the reason why she even got to write the piece was because Janssen-Cilag was spending good money to pipe out information on PE. But she didn’t. What we did learn is more revealing details about this particular form of treatment.

“The pill is the only known medication that can treat the condition and is currently available in seven European Union countries, including Sweden, Austria and Italy. Outside of Europe, the medicine is available only in New Zealand and South Korea.”

Right on. So Janssen-Cilag might soon turn out to be the saviour of many a Singaporean man’s ability to sustain his sexual performance, thanks to a unique drug known as dapoxetine. What else should we know about this seemingly brilliant sexual health tonic?

The patent for dapoxetine is currently owned by Johnson & Johnsonacquired in December 2000 by its subsidiary Alza Corporation. The responsibility for marketing the drug – sold under the brand name Priligy – outside of North America falls onto another J&J subsidiary, you’ve guess it, Janssen-Cilag.

So Janssen-Cilag is paying highly qualified doctors to spread the word about an under-reported condition that strikes at the heart of masculine vulnerability, whilst peddling the only drug approved for its treatment. Smooth moves.

It is apparently an old saying in the advertising trade that you sell the problem, not the solution. Or perhaps, as George Orwell allegedly observed, the genius in advertising is in selling both the problem and the solution. Which ever is true, Janssen-Cilag clearly paid attention, and they can hear the cash registers a-ring-a-ring-a-ding-a-ling, a-sing-a-ding-a-ding-a-ling, a-ting-ting-ting-a-ling, tinging.

Before we go doctor-bashing on this, we should think of the physicians’ involvement in this equation as a professional one. PE is not a myth, some men are stricken with it and relationships do suffer as a result. And doctors wouldn’t and shouldn’t say no to opportunities to raise awareness about under-reported medical conditions.

Nonetheless, the corporate role in influencing studies and media coverage is something to be keenly wary of. Pharmaceutical companies play with high stakes when they pump money into research, and unsurprisingly the results may well reflect just as much.

For instance, a 2003 systematic review of 30 medical studies, published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), found that “studies sponsored by pharmaceutical companies were more likely to have outcomes favouring the sponsor than were studies with other sponsors”, specifically four times more likely.

And it gets better. A 1994 study of 56 manufacturer-supported drug trials revealed that manufacturer-associated drug was “almost always reported as being equal or superior in efficacy and toxicity to the comparison drug.” Or, in plain English, as Ben Goldacre described in his book Bad Science:

“In every single trial the manufacturer’s drug came out as better than, or equal to, the others in the trial…To put it bluntly, this review of fifty-six trials exposed a singular absurdity: all of these drugs were better than each other.”

The authors of the 1994 study concluded:

“These data raise concerns about selective publication or biased interpretation of results in manufacturer-associated trials.”

Although these studies were concerned with performance of drugs rather than the prevalence of a medical condition (which the AP PEPA study is), the trend of manufacturer bias they reveal is unmistakable. But you couldn’t have guessed that if you just read the news.

The news media is unfortunately a woefully inadequate filter of bullshit. Why should it be? Reporters and editors themselves are often willing accomplices in the PR formula. Pressed for time and resources, they are usually grateful for neatly packaged information from corporate copywriters. Keen to pull readers with gripping statistics ostensibly shrouded with scientific authenticity, they often accept, consciously or not, dubious science and health stories from eager PR peddlers.

It seems like we’re left to fend for ourselves on this one. Perhaps we should start thinking more deeply about the private lives of public relations.

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~ by spiegel2071 on February 2, 2010.

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