Hey Xeljanz, What Exactly Are You Selling?

by Katherine Macfarlane

The strange world of rheumatoid arthritis medication marketing

I cannot escape the new Xeljanz ad, “Made for Better Things.” In one night of television viewing, I sat through it five times. Until I heard the narrator mention rheumatoid arthritis, I thought this was an ad for a pill to treat erectile dysfunction.

Presumably I’m this ad campaign’s target—I have RA, and I have decent insurance. Many RA medications have not worked for me. But I have no idea what the Xeljanz ad is trying to sell.

Instead, I have a few questions. Why is this ad shot in black and white? Why does everyone in the Xeljanz ad live in a fancy lake house? When you start taking Xeljanz, does someone come over and install hardwood floors? Do only married Caucasian people over the age of 50 take Xeljanz? Do you have to be in a heterosexual relationship to take it?

The ad opens on a shot of someone walking up wooden stairs. I notice that these are the kind of stairs that don’t have handrails.

These kind of stairs scare me—I am shaky on my feet and really, really need a handrail to support myself. Would anyone with the kind of serious mobility impairments that accompany RA really have stairs like this in her home? And the ankles in this shot are so smooth and unswollen. This is not a person with RA. Is it supposed to be someone with RA, or someone cured of his or her RA post-Xeljanz? Or is it just some rando going up the stairs? Wait, is this an intruder?!

We move from the stairs shot to another set of unswollen joints, wrists attached to lovely hands playing an elegant piano.

Is musical talent something Xeljanz will help me achieve? Being able to play the piano is not exactly what I’m hoping an RA medication will do. Or does Xeljanz come with tickets to a piano recital?

We cut next to a woman sitting in an elegant chair, silky nightgown draped over her limbs.  Her left hand is rubbing her right knee. But her knee is not at all swollen. Because the ad is in black and white, I can’t tell if her knee is red, but if either of my knees ever looked as good as this woman’s, I’d spend all day rubbing them for good luck. Maybe the nightgown is what Xeljanz will help me find. It’s very . . . slinky.

After a few more shots of incredibly healthy-looking hands, we move on to a scene of a couple (man and woman—everything is heteronormative in the land of Xeljanz) standing on a wood floor. Both are barefoot. Why? As an RA sufferer, I can’t stand to be barefoot. I need some sort of material between my feet and a hard surface. Flip flops, slippers, anything.

The woman in the shot is wearing a lacy dress. Her knees are visible. They are unswollen. Her calves are shapely. Everything looks great! No way are these the legs of an arthritic.

She stands up on her toes, another telltale sign that she’s free of joint problems. Wait, it looks like the lacy garment is being pulled off! Is this a scene meant to suggest coitus? If so, it’s my favorite part of the ad. I still don’t know what this has to do with overcoming RA, but more power to you barefooted, faceless strangers. Netflix and chill, my friends.

From there we move to the most ridiculous shot. Again, we don’t see a face, this time we’re focused on a male torso attached to powerful limbs. This shirtless man is squatting on a wooden dock, a sailboat in the background. Ah, Xeljanz. Since when do people with RA squat like that? And who is this guy? A Kennedy cousin? What we do see–toes, ankles, and knees-are untouched by disease.

Then we cut to two women talking and gesticulating with their hands. That’s cool. Unclear what this has to do with RA though. Maybe they’re talking about the headless hot dude swimming in the lake. It’s awesome that we see their faces because they are very beautiful women. Their faces are perfectly symmetrical, so I’m guessing they’re not on any kind of steroid treatment. Is the company of these women included with my Xeljanz prescription?

We return to the amazing squatting man who has by now leapt off the dock, moving seamlessly from a squat into a beautiful dive into the water. His legs extend in a straight line behind him. His arms are out in front. Is this Greg Louganis? Either way, I am convinced that this man has never had RA. Also, out of curiosity, if you’re at a higher risk of infection when you’re on Xeljanz, is swimming in a lake the best idea?

Diving effortlessly into a lake isn’t the end of the physical activity in this ad! It moves on to a shot of a headless woman executing a beautiful yoga pose.

Her knees are unmarked. She has no signs of bruising typical of those of us on immunosuppressants. I would guess that this is also not a woman who suffers from RA. Maybe her sweatshirt is what Xeljanz is promising me? Nice! I like this comfy looking sweatshirt.

Next we see a man and a woman in front of a mirror. The woman’s hair is pinned up in an intricate knot, a style no one with RA-afflicted hands could pull off. The man is putting a shimmering necklace on her, and his fingers are not struggling with the metal clasp.

Maybe he’s been cured of RA and now his hands can do something like this? Or does Xeljanz come with a free piece of jewelry?

The next person we see is swimming underwater, pulling herself through seaweed! She is definitely not afflicted with RA. By this point, I’m wondering if Xeljanz is also promising me waterfront real estate.

Back to an anonymous couple standing on a dock. They are embracing. The man wears a wedding ring, so we know this relationship is for real. Maybe Xeljanz will help you find a life partner.

We close on someone swinging in a hammock. Do you know how hard it is for anyone with compromised joints to get in and out of a hammock? Honestly it’s just not safe. Yes, I’ve fallen out of a hammock. Also, this hammock magician is sitting with knees bent and crossed one over the other. What kind of RA sufferer can manage this position?

So, to summarize, I have learned that if I take Xeljanz, either me or someone close to me will be blessed with a house by a lake, a sailboat, an expensive necklace, yoga attire, hardwood floors, and the wealth it takes to acquire all of the above.

Where can I sign up for this life? Oh, wait, I did sign up for Xeljanz. For about two weeks, I felt sort of better while I was taking it. My knees weren’t quite as swollen. Then I flared again, and my doctor decided Xeljanz wasn’t for me. And the whole time I was taking Xeljanz, I never morphed in to someone living a glamorous black and white life in a lake house. Where did I go wrong? 

Kat Macfarlane is a professor at the University of Idaho College of Law. When she’s not teaching and writing about the law, Kat volunteers as a patient advocate and blogs about her experience with rheumatoid arthritis, which she was diagnosed with at age 1. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington PostHairpinNorthwestern Magazine, NolaVie and Arthur’s Place.

Top image: screenshot from Xeljanz ad

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