MediCinema: Josh Fruhlinger on EpiDuo and the John Hughesian Drama of Teen Acne

In 1997, when the FDA allowed prescription-drug manufacturers to actually tell people what their pills and potions did via television ads, did they foresee the consequences? Did they anticipate the flowering of an entirely new genre of short-form drama that would grace the airways every night throughout America, bringing tales of tragedy and heroism and wonderful pills into our living rooms?

Prescription-drug ads are like sonnets: the artistry is constrained by the rules of the form. In this case, the form demands that the stories play out quickly enough that viewers at home don't change the channel, and that a bevy of terrifying side effects be explained in a manner both informative and reassuring. And, just as you may have found Cliff Notes helpful as you worked your way through Shakespeare's poetry in high school, so too you might like to have the nuances of these drug ads explicated for you. On behalf of The Human Condition, Josh Fruhlinger is here to help. We begin with this ad for EpiDuo.

THE PROTAGONIST: Tyler B might well be a handsome young man, but you'd never know it, because nearly half a dozen fairly tame zits are scattered casually around his face. This makes him unlike most other teenagers; no doubt he's subject to scorn and ridicule from his many non-blemished friends. As we learn from a narrator, who appears to be on loan from a film shown in shop class in 1956, he's chosen to fight back against this oppression with direct political action, occupying the aisle of his local pharmacy: a "zit-in," if you will. With his tent and cereal, he appears to be fairly comfortable, though perhaps the air conditioning in the store has been cranked up in an attempt to freeze him out, as he's wearing a hat throughout.

Tyler has not one but two medical fairy godpersons. The first is a friendly bald gentleman in a light blue jacket, presumably a pharmacist: older and authoritative, but still able to talk to the kids in the language they speak, deploying a teen-friendly "get a life" in an attempt to get Tyler the heck out of his store. Tyler, it turns out, is a little on the dim side―you can see his zit-marred face scrunching up as he attempts to process the phrase "medical condition"─ but once our pharmacist says "doc-tor" slowly and carefully, the moment of clarity strikes. Later, Tyler has his face examined and lightly touched by a doctor who looks an awful lot like former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards.

I remember being 14 and asking my own pediatrician, who more resembled Orville Redenbacher, what I could do about acne. "Oh, it'll go away when you turn 21," he said (14 years after my 21st birthday, I can now definitively say that this is NOT TRUE). Dr. John-Edwards-a-like does not take such a passive stance on Tyler's facial blight. Prescription-strength EpiDuo is the answer! Hopefully, Tyler will go back to that pharmacy, whose aisle he befouled with his tent, to get this filled. (Are the blue-suited guy and John Edwards in cahoots?)

TRANSFORMATION, AND CAVEATS: Drying redness peeling stinging burning itching WHO CARES? Look at how darn handsome that kid is, now that, thanks to EpiDuo, we can see his face! Sure, it looks like he's still got one zit, just under that pretty mouth (or is it a shadow? I went back and forth over that sequence like I was looking at that Zapruder film and came to no firm conclusion). But that just makes him more down-to-earth and accessible. Those two young ladies he's with sure seem enthralled, and willing to overlook the fact that he's still wearing that hat even though it appears to be a perfectly nice day out. (They're not alone!) Now Tyler's able to use his pimple-protest tent for a more cheerful and perhaps not altogether wholesome purpose: camping out for unspecified "tickets" with his two new lady friends. Another happy ending, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry!

Fruhlinger is a freelancer writer and editor and creator of the Comics Curmudgeon. He lives in Baltimore with his wife, Amber, and cat, Hoagie.