About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sex, drugs and... cheerleading?!

I must admit my bias: I have always thought that the all-American figure of the cheerleader is one of the most questionable icons of modern culture. For crying out loud, the US of A is the country where the sexual revolution happened, where there are Women's Studies departments at major universities! But then we turn around and actually institutionalize what amounts to a not-so-subtle exploitation of women (yes, there are men cheerleaders, but they ain't those whose butts get pinched after having being thrown up in the air) as part of athletic events featuring not just professional teams, but "academic" ones as well.

Recently, however, the cheerleading phenomenon has become even more obviously about the outright use of sex to sell a product -- this time medical drugs rather than college images. As an article by Stephanie Saul in the New York Times reports, cheerleaders (largely women) are hired in increasing numbers by pharmaceutical companies to help sell prescription drugs to doctors and, therefore, to the general public.

Of course, unlike what happens in several European countries, the saleswomen in question are not required to have a degree in science, or even to have the foggiest idea of whatever they are selling. All they need to do is to smile in a captivating fashion, flaunt their sexuality, and bring home a bonus for their day's work.

A cheerleeding "advisor" at the University of Kentucky, Lynn Williamson, says that pharmaceutical companies "watch to see who's graduating, they don't ask what the major is.'' No kidding. According to Gregory Webb, who runs a company named Spirited Sales Leaders (!!), ''the cheerleaders now are the top people in universities; these are really capable and high-profile people.'' Oh, I thought those were the faculty, or perhaps the Provost or President. Shows you how little I understand of academic matters.

According to Lamberto Andreotti, of Bristol-Myers Squibb, the practice of hiring cheerleaders to sell drugs to (largely male) doctors has "nothing to do with looks," a sentiment echoed by an anonymous cheerleader who works for a pharmaceutical company, claiming that "there is so much more to it.'' Yes, and I own a piece of real estate in Rome called "the Coliseum," anybody interested in buying it?

What is amazing, of course, is that all of this goes on in a country (and largely in the south, at universities like Kentucky and Alabama), which is currently affected by a "moral value" mania, where the alleged moral values have nothing to do with, say, war, exploitation, poverty and famine, and everything to do with sex -- including consensual relationships among adults. Along similar lines, it was paradigmatic during the 2004 elections to see the good citizens of Nevada simultaneously vote to ban gay marriage and to legalize prostitution, apparently entirely unencumbered by any thought process that might lead to consider the incongruity of said twin vote.

Of course, all of this gives me a couple of ideas about how, say, to improve funding for education, or science (other than holding bake sales). Perhaps we should send those of my colleagues who were featured in the (thankfully now defunct) "Stud Muffins of Science" calendar to plead for money in Congress. I doubt it's immoral to sexually exploit a bunch of ego-inflated male PhD's, is it?


  1. Here's a similar article from the Chicago Tribune:


    The article in the NY Times, which has a bit more detail than the Tribune article, can't be seen without either paying money or Googling for those who cut-and-pasted the Times article.

  2. I'm a physician so I have some experience with this topic.

    First, about half of medical students are now women, so this may not be as common in the future.

    Second, as a male physician, when the new product's rep shows up in the waiting room for a moment or two of pitching the drug, I'm much more likely to give the person an ear if she's a pretty young thing, than a smart well dressed young man. (I never could really pick out who are the handsome men.)

    Third, most of them are very well trained in their product vs. competing products and brains still show. But looks and personality get them in the door and get them return visits. So looks first, personality second, knowledge third, and brains fourth (as long as they are not stupid, which they are usually not.)

    Fourth, and by the way, they make very good money doing this, almost a commission type arrangement. The pharmacies release data as to how much of each product each physician is prescribing, and the reps get paid in part by increases in prescriptions for their products by physicians. They make 5 and 6 digit incomes. The competition for the jobs is intense.

    This is very American, as one would suspect (or expect) for a capitalist economy. The drug companies know that advertising sells medicines: advertising on TV to patients, advertising by reps to doctors, and hired MD "experts" who give talks or lunch discussions right at doctors' offices.

    But there is hope. I recently went to a two day conference in Bethesda Maryland at which all the speakers were on staff at NIH (National Institute of Health) or NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) and every medicine was referred to by it's chemical name not it's brand name. It was refreshing. University education programs also have that style.

  3. In thinking about this there's another kind of privacy issue or lack of privacy issue, which I have noticed in writting my comments above.

    How do people feel about pharmacies releasing all the prescribing data of physicians without needing any release from the physicians or patients?

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  5. I doubt things would change much if more physicials were females. They'd just send in a hot young guy to adverstise. I'm sure google could even come out with a service, matching physicians & advertisers :)

  6. As a pharmacist I can relate a story. We can tell when a new 'hot' drug rep is making the rounds because all of a sudden we see an influx of new prescriptions for whatever she may be selling. Sex sells, for good or ill.

    bmk md, pharmacies can't release that kind of info. We don't even keep track of it by doctor. We are restricted, especially now by the new HIPPA regulations, from releasing anything to anyone without a court order. However, our suppliers are under few privacy restrictions and I would suspect they are the source of that kind of recordkeeping.

  7. Regarding the "moral values" part of the story, Massimo, I'd say that, as expected, specially in a "Calvinist society", if it brings a quick buck (or many, as bmk md related), it must be right. Never mind the methods. Be it war, religion, exploiting the poor, questionable advertising or turning the educational system into a circus, who cares, as long as everybody makes more money? I'd like to see more critiques (and the corresponding defenses) of the excessive importance given to sports in universities, and the consequences (if any). Hell, even HIGH SCHOOL games can be seen on TV.

    How are the teams of the Ivy league doing?


  8. It's really refreshing to see someone honestly telling it like it is rather than hiding behind a blur of spin.

    Thanks bmk md

  9. MP wrote:"All they need to do is to smile in a captivating fashion, flaunt their sexuality, and bring home a bonus for their day's work."

    And I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with that. I'm old and ugly so I have to sell my intellect and expertise to the people who are impressed by it. If I were young and attractive what would be wrong with selling that to the people who are impressed by those qualities?
    Or let's make it more personal. Let's say that you (Massimo Pigliucci himself) has created a new product and hired 20 salespeople. If the top five sales getters are pretty women and the bottom five are balding, middle aged men and somebody quits, will you be inclined to replace that person with the first candidate through the door (especially if it happens to be a balding, middle aged man) or will you be pragmatic and go with what obviously works? And don't forget, the roof over your family's head, the clothes on their backs and the food on their table depends on making some sales of your product.

  10. And I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with that.

    In this case, the answer is simple: Prescription drugs are potentially dangerous. They are useful, of course, but the whole reason for not making them available over-the-counter is so that experts--namely doctors--can provide control over their usage and mitigate the risks. A doctor who prescribes something because he is thinking with what's between his legs rather than what's between his ears is putting patients at risk.

  11. Ok j.j., what then is the alternative? A law against pretty women being drug reps? A law against drug reps altogether? How about a law that you can sue your doctor for million$, have him stripped of his medical license and/or thrown in jail if he mistreats you? Oh wait, we already have that.

  12. This is a few weeks late, so probably no one will read this, but:

    I fail to see why cheerleading should be considered exploitation of women. Or for that matter any expression of sexuality that is freely chosen by any person, man or women.

    Indeed isn't there a correlation between societies were women have greater freedoms and rights and where they can choose to express or even flaunt their sexuality (key word being "choose")

    Note that in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, where women had zero rights, they had to be covered from head to toe. Whereas, say in France, female nudity can be seen on billboard advertising and on public TV commercials.

    With respect to cheerleading, it is of course all voluntary and I would imagine most of the participants enjoy the athleticism, dance, creativity and social accolades that come with the sport/activity.

    I even disagree with those that say that Hooters waitresses are exploited. (One could even argue that is the men (some) who are exploited by restaurant owners who know they will tip more than they can afford to in response to powerful biological urges -- but I won't) Hooters waitress do so by choice, enjoy bigger tips and often get to cross path with celebrities, etc. It may not be the life for you or me, but that is the whole point. If want to talk about exploitation, it is the poor Denny's waitress who is working like a slave for a 50 cent tip.

    Liberation means the freedom to choose. If one chooses to pose for Playboy that is a result of being liberated -- not too many Saudi women who have that freedom. Why should men only get to profit for having physiques that are far above average? And if a man can only view a woman as a sex object, it is that man whose thinking needs to be adjusted. Most men can appreciate women as beings in totality where their sexuality is but one component.

    One thing I've noticed about Conservatives and Liberals alike is that they are too quick to degrade those things that are of no interest to them or distasteful, even though they really don't fit into any ideological framework.

  13. Alan,

    I'm certainly not advocating the prohibition of cheerleading, or the closing of Hooters. However, I do think you overestimate the "freedom" that accompanies such choices. Hooters' waitresses often don't have many other choices to work, and cheerleaders propagate the pernicious stereotype that attractive women don't have brains.

  14. "Ok j.j., what then is the alternative? A law against pretty women being drug reps? A law against drug reps altogether?"

    Dr. Pigliucci pointed out that in several European countries, the salespeople are required to have a degree in science. That wouldn't ban pretty drug reps, but it would probably mean that the proportion of drug reps of pretty woman would be roughly the same as the proportion of the general population who were pretty women, and it would probably have plenty of other beneficial effects as well.


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