Do you prefer Prada aspirin or generic aspirin?
I like my headaches to be cured in a luxurious way, so I prefer Prada. Generic aspirin just doesn’t work for me. Why? Because I think so.
Thoughts on drugs
What we think about medicine has a huge effect on its success. Scientists have tested the effect of thoughts about medicine among a group of undergraduate students. Undergraduate students have to deal with many stresses of life, so they get headaches fairly regularly. Assignments, tests, break-ups, not finding coffee: all these cause headaches when there is no alcohol around. Some opportunistic researchers realised this, and tested to see if branding headache relief tables changed its success among undergraduate students.
The researchers gave students fake generic tables and fake branded tablets, but didn’t tell them which is which. As expected, there were more students claiming headache relief with branded tablets in comparison to generic tablets (even though the tablets were fake). Either the students were full of shit, or branding does in fact change the way we see products.The ‘branding’ effect can be seen in many products, so it’s not likely the students were full of shit this time.
Most people like beer, right? Researchers wanted to test if adding a label to beer made beer lovers think it’s better. So the researchers gave a group of beer-caholics unlabelled beer. After a week, the same beer was given- but this time labeled. Sure enough, the beer fans preferred the labeled one (but would take free beer any time).
Similar experiments were carried out many times with other products, and what is constant across all the studies is: branding changes our view on quality and effectiveness of a product, and can ultimately change our experience with it. But, why does this happen?
Science behind preference
It’s because of our brainzzzzzz – I mean brains; sorry, my zombie instinct kicked in. Three separate parts of our brain interact with each other to decide what’s better. The ‘decision’ is made based on our expectations of a product.
Let’s say we want to buy headache pain relief medicine after a hangover. We go to the counter of a pharmacy, and say to the overworked underpaid clerk, “I’d like some headache pain relief medicine… please”. The clerk, with a dead expression, asks “would you like the Prada aspirin, or the generic one?”. That’s when the first part of our brain comes to play. The part involving memory.
We start remembering our experiences with Prada aspirin. How it worked in the past; the TV commercial about Prada aspirin working three times faster than its competitors; the advertisement with the sexy girl who no longer has headaches at night. Generic on the other hand… Nothing. If you’ve used it before, you would remember your experience , but there’s no sexy girl using generic aspirin.
After we remember stuff, the next part of our brain kicks in. The part that determines subjective quality of things, or in other words: what we prefer. It brings together all things we remember and compares the generic and the Prada branded aspirin. Eventually it decides which one is of higher quality. But while this is going on, the third part of our brain also comes into play: the part that sets our goal. “What do we want the aspirin to do?”, it asks. “Get rid of the headache so we can drink more alcohol”, we say. So it then forms an expectation on which aspirin will fulfill our goal, and we make a decision.
Expectations and reality
Our expectation plays a huge role on the effect of the drug. If we expect the aspirin to work, the aspirin will most likely work. On the other hand, if we expect it to not work, there is a good chance that the headache will not go away.
This process happens in all decisions we make. Which car to buy, which restaurant to eat in, whom to go out with… It helps us choose the one that suits us better. But when it comes to medicine, does it really do us any good? Do we really need to compare medicine?
Many studies have been carried out to see if there is a difference between generic and branded medicine, and all these research come to the same conclusion: there is no real difference. So we don’t need to compare medicine; they’re all the same. But why do we? It’s because we don’t know. Most people don’t choose generic because they don’t know if it’s different from branded medicine.
Well, there is no difference, so next time you buy drugs, feel free to choose the generic one. Or don’t, if you want your headache to be cured in a luxurious way.
Want to learn more? “Marketing Placebo Effects – From Behavioral Effects to Behavior Change?” is a great article by Laura Enax and Bernd Weber, for those wanting to delve deeper into this topic.