What Negative Media Portrayals Say About Pharmacists

FEBRUARY 06, 2015
Meghan Ross, Associate Editor
With 144.4 million pairs of eyes glued to television screens for Super Bowl XLIX, the advertisement portraying Bryan Cranston’s “Breaking Bad” character as a pharmacist got a lot of exposure.

In fact, Super Bowl XLIX was the most-watched show in the nation’s TV history, and with such a large audience, what can 1 commercial say about the pharmacy profession?

This question interested Brandon Bookstaver, PharmD, associate professor of pharmacy at the University of South Carolina, who has conducted research on perceptions of pharmacists in TV shows and movies.

Dr. Bookstaver was hosting a Super Bowl party at his house with a couple of pharmacy colleagues when the commercial came on.

“I was a little bit dumbfounded,” Dr. Bookstaver told Plantsvszombies.info. “…I said, ‘See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about with the negative portrayal of pharmacists in the media.’”

In the ad, a woman arrives at a pharmacy counter and is surprised to see Walter White, who is donning the gas mask and hazmat suit that he typically wears when cooking crystal meth in “Breaking Bad.”

When the woman mentions that he is not her normal pharmacist, White responds, “I’m sorta Greg.”

“We’re both over 50 years old. We both used to own a Pontiac Aztek. We both have a lot of experience with drugs…sorry, pharmaceuticals,” White says.

He then hands the woman a pill bottle that is not her prescription. She tries to challenge him on it, but he makes her take the bottle, saying, “You’ll thank me later.”

While the majority of comments on the Plantsvszombies.info Facebook page reflected positive reactions to the commercial, a few readers found the ad in poor humor.

“Sorry, don’t find wrong Rx part at all funny,” one reader wrote.

Dr. Bookstaver had a similar reaction to the ad. Making light of the pharmacy job and downplaying the importance of pharmacy can plant a negative seed in the minds of the public, he argued.
Dr. Bookstaver pointed out that it was an interesting choice to have White play a pharmacist for the commercial. The gas mask, hazmat suit, and even character can carry dangerous or negative connotations.

Another aspect of the commercial that Dr. Bookstaver highlighted was the suspicious way in which the customer looked at White, who was clearly not her normal pharmacist.

“You’re not Greg,” she tells White in the commercial.

Dr. Bookstaver pointed out that some pharmacists try to teach patients about the benefits of using just 1 pharmacy. Going to the same pharmacy is better for safety and record keeping, and it allows for a relationship to develop between the pharmacist and the patient.

“We don’t want pharmacists depicted as floaters all the time and that there’s not really a relationship developed,” Dr. Bookstaver said.

He gave the example of his pharmacist father who has worked at 2 different pharmacies for more than 30 years and has been able to develop long-lasting relationships with his patients.

“When there is a foreign face, an unfamiliar face, it’s a little bit alien to the patient,” Dr. Bookstaver said. “There’s a little bit of anxiety there. You know, you’re dealing with their medications. That’s a big deal.”

This isn’t the first time Dr. Bookstaver has paid this much attention to a media portrayal of pharmacists. In fact, his research has spanned 4 decades of data from TV shows and movies.

According to Dr. Bookstaver, 65% of pharmacist portrayals in TV and movies were negative, meaning they were depicted either as victims (more frequently) or villains (less frequently).  

One particularly damaging depiction of a pharmacist was seen on the TV show “Hannibal,” where a floater pharmacist working at a big chain store started burying patients alive, all the while feeding them intravenously and using their bodies as fertilizer in his garden.

Other inclusions of pharmacists in TV and movies have shown them sharing private medical information. Dr. Bookstaver gave the example of “The Nanny” episode where Fran Dresher’s character runs into her pharmacist at a restaurant, and he starts asking about her health issues in a public setting. 

“It makes people think, ‘Is my pharmacist sitting around—even at a Super Bowl party—and talking about my ailments with people in my neighborhood?” Dr. Bookstaver told Plantsvszombies.info. “How confidential really is my information in a pharmacy?’”

While 1 short commercial may not make a deep, long-lasting impact on a viewer, Dr. Bookstaver pointed out that this ad continues on a trend of negative depictions. However, he did suggest that many viewers might have been focused more on the character onscreen than on the fact that he was playing a pharmacist.

“We still continue to see the pharmacy and pharmacist profession as the lone ranger when it comes to being depicted in a negative light,” said Dr. Bookstaver, comparing pharmacists to other health care professionals. 


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