In both cases, everybody is selling more or less the same thing, but trying -- via distortions and half-truths -- to look uniquely effective.
Consider the cold/flu/allergy segment. There are three common, chemically similar antihistamine drugs: diphenhydromine (Benedryl), chlorphenamine (Chlortrimeton) and tripolidine. They all relieve sneezing, itch and watery eyes, but they all can cause severe drowsiness.
There are two principal and closely related OTC decongestants: pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylpropanolamine. These relieve sinus congestion. And there are a handful of analgesics, chief among them acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil).
Those eight drugs -- plus a couple treating coughs -- represent the entire universe of non-prescription cold and allergy medications. Contac, Comtrex and the other dozens of permutations on the store shelves all include some combination of these same pharmaceuticals.
"Sinus" formulas include one of the decongestants. "Non-drowsiness" formulas leave out the antihistamine. Headache relief? Throw in some acetaminophen. It's that simple -- which is why the drug companies seek to make it seem so complex, so mystifying.
For decades, they have systematically stated or implied special expertise, special benefits, superior relief when there is none whatsoever. No wonder. Otherwise consumers might buy antihistamines, decongestants and analgesics a la carte and treat themselves according to their immediate symptoms.
That the manufacturers' shameless behavior promotes overmedication and undermedication has always made such smoke and mirrors unforgivable. But now, thanks to McNeil Consumer Products Corp. and Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, the stakes are even higher.
Not content to confuse the issue vis-a-vis other patent medicines, Tylenol Allergy Sinus is warning people off an important class of prescription drugs.
"A lot of people think that the best way to deal with allergies is to take a prescription," a presenter, says, "a common misconception, because when it comes to all your allergy symptoms, Tylenol Allergy Sinus gives you more relief than even the leading allergy prescription. You see, the leading prescription only relieves these symptoms . . ."
Then an onscreen super: "Itchy Watery Eyes, Itchy Runny Nose, Sneezing."
"But Tylenol Allergy Sinus relieves all these," he says and another super lists, in addition, nasal congestion, sinus pressure and pain, and headache. Then the tagline: "Take comfort in our strength."
Here's a better idea. Take umbrage at their outrageous deceit.
What this ad fails to mention is the prescription antihistamines it refers to -- Claritin and Allegra -- treat allergy symptoms without drowsiness. Because of these revolutionary drugs, patients no longer have to choose between debilitating hay fever and debilitating drowsiness.
If a doctor prescribes Claritin and the patient also wants sinus and headache relief, the appropriate treatment is simply to add a decongestant and analgesic as needed -- not to substitute Tylenol Allergy Sinus, containing the OTC antihistamine and the sedative effect that comes with it.
Where are the federal regulators to stop this train wreck waiting to happen?