IN A RECENT EPISODE of Real Time with Bill Maher — one that I could actually sit through without yelling and muttering to myself — the host discussed the anti-vaxxer debate with the panel. Guest Marianne Williamson remarked that “being skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry is not the same as being anti-science.” Having myself been accused of being anti-science for my critical perspective on hormonal birth control and compared to an anti-vaxxer for encouraging informed consent in contraception, I seized this statement as a moment of rare clarity in the discussion of drugs and medicine.
I am often asked if I was worried about going up against Bayer, one of the pharmaceutical industry’s giants, in my work. There seems, at times, to be just two camps of people: those that believe the pharmaceutical industry is a compassionate sponsor and supporter of women’s liberation, and those who believe I might be quietly offed by one of Bayer’s compliance officers (yes, they’re really called that) any day now. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between, and it can in fact be found in Bayer’s latest campaign: “Break Up & Move.”
Marketing Magazine reports that Bayer is “encouraging millennial women to break up with the birth control pill.” That’s right, the maker of the most popular brands of oral contraceptive of the last decade — Yaz and Yasmin — wants you to stop using them. Bayer claims its intentions are pure: it only wants to help women “ditch what isn’t working in their lives, such as bad relationships, unhealthy diets and, ultimately, taking the pill,” and is doing so by offering free yoga classes and “education” at university campuses across Canada. It seems that Bayer is riding on the feminist movement’s coattails; over the last few months, we’ve seen article after article from multiple media outlets highlighting the increasing number of women ditching the Pill in favor of FAM (fertility awareness method), an non-pharmaceutical birth control method that serves as a viable alternative to hormonal contraception. Appropriating a new movement – feminist rejection of the Pill — by using and manipulating that movement’s own language and concepts is an evil-genius-level move. Bayer wants to be seen as the feminist’s best friend, always looking out for her needs and meeting her desires.
But Bayer doesn’t sell FAM. Bayer sells hormonal IUDs: Mirena and Skyla. Since this is what’s called an “unbranded” campaign, you won’t see those names on the handouts or the Tumblr page, but you can bet that their ultimate goal is to have Mirena and Skyla numbers skyrocket. Bayer didn’t have to create the need here — a desire for an alternative to the Pill is ever-present. They just needed to take control of the solution.
The campaign is based in Canada partly because direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs is illegal there, but also, I’d speculate, because Canadian media is the most vocal about the Pill’s side effects, and Canada also happens to be home to the majority of FAM practitioners and supporters. Elle Canada this month has a feature headlined “The Pill’s Chill,” a discussion of alternatives to the Pill split neatly between the Canada-originated Justisse method of fertility awareness and IUDs.
Bayer advertising campaigns in the past have aligned the Pill with liberation from the oppression of experience periods or PMS or bloating — all in all, the oppression of being biologically female. Bayer won’t overtly admit something is wrong with the Pill (despite subtly connecting it to an unhealthy diet or bad relationship), but instead points the finger at the oppressive nature of the daily Pill-taking regimen. Women are busy with having it all so they forget sometimes, and Bayer gets that.
(One can imagine the marketing team meeting. Marketing Exec #1: So who are these women who don’t want to use the Pill? Marketing Exec #2: The kind who do yoga? Marketing Exec #3: I’ve got it! Let’s give them free yoga classes! Marketing Exec #2: Even if we don’t believe in the health benefits of Eastern medical practices? Marketing Exec #3: Really? Who even invited you to this meeting?)
The Tumblr for the campaign is filled with vague, nonsensical platitudes like “Time to rethink some things” and “X marks the spot, travel ahead.” What do those even mean? The poster for the free yoga and education events paints them as “a straight-up chat with relationship and health experts on how to break up with the bad things in your life and let in the good.” Essentially, the Pill — that would be the bad thing — and the hormonal IUD — that would be the good thing. There’s not a company logo or brand name in sight, but you can be sure those experts – a psychologist and a gynecologist, actually – are being bankrolled by Bayer.
This isn’t the only trick Bayer has up its sleeve: on Valentine’s Day, Bayer also launched Your Perfect Match, a campaign connected to Break Up &Move that asks women to consider starting a relationship with one of their “long-acting contraceptive methods” (interestingly, they’ve dropped the long-used “reversible” term from this phrase). “We’ve launched the #YourPerfectMatch campaign to inspire and encourage women to consider their current situations, break up with the things that just aren’t working, and make owned decisions in all aspects of their life,” states the Tumblr. Note the language of “breaking up” and “relationships”: by framing a woman’s relationship with the Pill as a problem of personal choice, like dating someone you discover isn’t good for you, Bayer gets to wash its hands of responsibility for the reasons the match might have soured. The cynical “Valentine’s Day is for naïve idiots” message underlying the campaign creates the comforting feeling that Bayer believes women are too smart to fall for obvious attempts at branding and profiteering.
By suggesting that women’s dissatisfaction in all areas – from contraception to career to relationships – can be resolved by the individual simply deciding to make a change, Bayer aligns itself with choice-based feminism and usefully denies the existence of social pressures, economic considerations, and, well, context.
What’s wrong with the Mirena and Skyla IUDs? Aren’t they better than the Pill? To many, they’re just like the Pill (the synthetic hormones have a systemic impact with similar negative consequences for your health and well-being), but with the added bonus of being an embedded foreign object that your body is fighting against. The period of time directly after having a Mirena removed has become so notorious for its effects on a woman’s mental and physical health that it has its own name – the “Mirena Crash.” The Pill can be hard enough for some women to “break up” with, even if Bayer’s Your Perfect Match campaign suggests laughter, positive thinking and exercise are enough of an antidote, but ditching Mirena (which over half of women do before the expiration date, due to its side effects) can be even harder. Plus, there’s the fact that you have to hand over control to your medical provider, who then gets to decide if you really need it removed one miserable year later.
So, no, I’m not afraid of a compliance officer ripping me from my bed while I sleep one night. The Break Up & Move campaign is what has me afraid. The capitalistic tendency to subsume revolutionary movements is what’s keeping me awake.