Vytorin is a single pill — a drug that combines two different medicines (Zetia and Zocor) to combat the two kinds of cholesterol (generally called “good” and “bad” cholesterol”) which they identify as coming from two different sources (“food & family”). As Time magazine reports, there may be truth in these claims, and also problems with it — but the effectiveness of the drug is not my interest. Instead, I want to focus on how all these “dualities” — of medicine, cholesterol, and its origin — are overdetermined in the advertising, repeating some strangely familiar structures of the Uncanny that we often find in consumer culture. Similar to products like Wrigley’s “Doublemint” Gum, Vytorin lends itself to a marketing campaign that actively employs the figure of the double (der doppelganger) to draw the attention of the consumer. As I argue in The Popular Uncanny, in mass marketing and advertising the structures of the Uncanny often become ambiguously attractive and repulsive representations, reflecting our ambivalent anxieties about consumer culture. Here, the idea that “you are what you eat” is taken quite literally. It’s kind of cute, the first time you see it, but in the endless stream of associative pairings between people and food, one becomes progressively convinced that there is something universal about these claims, and that, perhaps, all food mirrors people (and vice-versa). While this ad — like most pharmaceutical advertising — projects a wish for a miracle cure, the use of doubling is so overdetermined that is also uncannily disturbing, if only because these matings feel predestined and beyond our control.
In the YouTube video above — from Vytorin’s infamously clever television campaign a few years ago — the ad showed a series of screens in which a diversity of overtly costumed actors are associated (first by “dissolves” into a single universal plate, then in panels, side by side on screen) with tasty foods and fancy dishes. The overt correspondences between body morphology, fashion choices, and food dishes is quite striking; the symmetry in design and the patterned replication of color schemes across the frame is orchestrated in a way that one simply cannot overlook the “double” message: people are food. Physical traits as well as personality are “naturally” reflected by our choice in food products. We are what we eat; and in the case of cholesterol, it can kill us, because we can’t help ourselves, and the inheritance of our family lines only affirms this.
This visual personification of ice cream and waffles and hot dogs is more than just clever ad design. Here we have an example of uncanny doubling, but it is different than the traditional “doppelganger” in that we are presented with a live human being whose “alter ego” is the food product — an inanimate (or in the case of meat, dead) object on a plate…a double which the living implicitly consume.
There is a subtle cannibalism at work in the dreamlike psychology here. If you see a scrumptious pile of pancakes in one shot, you probably don’t want to eat the person they associate with it, but the implied message is that these people consume these projections of themselves (and perhaps more subtly, vice-versa). Vytorin is suggesting that some people are “naturally” attracted to foods, no matter how artificial or prepared they might be — and by showing these associations in a lengthy series, subtly argues that this compulsory food choice can be generalized as a “compulsion to repeat” that is, simply, human nature.
The double is the “harbinger of death” and Vytorin presents itself as a cure not for cholesterol, per se, but for our anxiety about our predestined fate. If it is “natural,” moreover, then it is “healthy,” and a manufactured pharmaceutical company obviously benefits from framing itself as a “natural” cure or preventative medicine. Commercial pill brand names often pun on our desire for infinite life and health (as I have argued elsewhere about the pain reliever, Aleve). The name “Vytorin” even sounds life-giving in its prefix (“Vyt-“, implying “vital,” as in “vitamin”), before it battles choles-“tor”-al with its “statIN”-based formula. But beyond that, in the ad, the focus on the communion of “food” and “family” transforms the scary point it makes about the origin of cholesterol into a story of “organic” harmony and healthy wish-fulfillment. All these implicit health claims drive home the subtle message that Vytorin is a healthy choice, enabling you to go ahead and eat whatever you like, because it is your destiny, your nature, and the pill fits into this schema as natural law.
Of course, no matter how healthy and uplifting the product might sound, or even be, the ad benefits, too, from fear, as all advertising does — and with most medical advertising, the fear being alluded to here is the fear of death. If you look like a egg salad, and you compulsively eat egg salad, you are only one step away from becoming the equivalent of egg salad. The blurring of boundaries between signifier and signified is an ambivalence that is both cutely humorous and darkly scary. The harbinger of death is the uncanny double.