An Exercise in Ethical Criticism: Celebrex© on TV

Paul Dombrowski
University of Central Florida

Ethics can seem a subtle abstraction to some students, but the topic can be made more vivid, clear, and real through examples.  The example I provide here, a televised Celebrex© commercial, is one I have used in my technical communication classes. The commercial provides an egregious example of visual rhetoric used in technical medical information that is misleading, incomplete, and masked in a communication to the general public.  Reaching farther back in time to Plato, who linked ethics with rhetoric, it is an example of bad or ignoble rhetoric on the basis of its ethics.

It is also an “excellent” example of how writing can be deliberately crafted not to be audience-centric or to rank high on a usability scale.  It shows how a communicator can seem to craft a message designed for the message’s audience when, in fact, the information is not focused upon or fully grasped by the audience.  In this particular commercialthe manufacturer can claim to meet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements, but they only do so in the letter, not the spirit, of the regulations.

In examining this single TV advertisement we can go one step further than Nancy Allen did in her an article titled “Ethics and Visual Rhetoric: Seeing’s Not Believing Anymore” to add, “seeing’s not knowing anymore.”  The case study could be used in educating students about ethics in visual technical communication.  It also would work well in a Peircian analysis of visual rhetoric in the manner recommended by Manning and Amare, with the “decorative” dimension predominating and even overpowering the “informative” dimension.

The ad is for the drug Celebrex© (a COX-2 enzyme inhibitor and NSAID) made by Pfizer and run during the year 2005.  Celebrex© has achieved a certain notoriety for several reasons, primarily because late clinical trials were suspended due to the discovery of an increased heart attack risk.  It was also one source of a broad concern at the FDA about the questionable appropriateness of intense direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) in general at a time when Celebrex© and its competitors Vioxx© (Merck) and Bextra© (Searle) were striving to dominate the arthritis pain-reliever market.  The concern of the FDA was with how clearly—or not—technical information was being communicated to the public.  (The ad can be viewed on YouTube by searching on “Celebrex ad” and choosing the ad with a simple bright blue background.)

Visually, the ad consists of the images of a man and women going about their daily activities, including taking a dog for a walk.  The man, woman, dog, (and later, a fish) are represented only as white outlines against an entire background of blue.  The blue is a calming, reassuring color (in comparison to, say, red or orange, or stark black and white). The activities portrayed are normal, natural activities of healthy beings, whether human or canine, suggesting that the medication being advertised will allow patients to undertake these same activities normally, without pain and, more important, in a carefree way without fear.  Such a suggestion is to be expected of an advertisement for a pain reliever, of course, and is not remarkable in itself, but the FDA requires that appropriate warnings accompany such advertisements.

The remarkable aspects of the ad are the obfuscation, the masking, and the misleading visual presentation of important information in the video.  The white outlines of the human and animal figures are not solid lines at all, we come to see, but lines of written text.  Snippets of this text are occasionally pulled out from an undulating stream of tiny unreadable writing for magnification and brief emphasis in conjunction with the audio complement to the text.  Thus, the main structure of the images consists of fine print that we cannot discern as words; it is like the proverbial “fine print” of contracts that deters close reading and works against the interests of the general reader.

Both the visual written text, which I focus on here, and the spoken text present ethical issues in terms of what is missing. What is not mentioned in either written or spoken form is the regulatory and bureaucratic context in which concerns were raised by the FDA about these medications.  Celebrex© is required by the FDA to carry the same risk warnings as other common over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen (Motrin©). However, the ad does not include information that states that the studies that were curtailed due to the risk to the research subjects, nor does the ad include the statistics resulting from those studies.  Although the spoken text mentions that other risk factors exist, the statistical data of other risk factors associated with Celebrex© are not presented either. In the single instance of some statistical exploration, the narrator looks “deeper” into the data, against the background of fish and dolphins playfully frolicking in the water.  The narrator points out that “for certain patients, the benefits outweigh the risks” of using Celebrex©, but without specifics. This seeming “deeper” look expressed by the narrator is actually very shallow because it does not indicate the magnitude of such a population (is it a statistically large or small proportion of the total set of potential NSAIDS consumers?) and the narrator does not attempt to define it even vaguely.  And, of course, the narrator does not articulate the other side of the coin: For certain patients, the risks outweigh the benefits.

The overall impression the ad leaves a viewer with is the prospect of a happy, active, healthy life resulting from the use of Celebrex©.  Seen through the narrow, self-interested lens of the manufacturer and advertising agency, it is a factually correct—though selective, fleeting, and incomplete—representation of the gross facts about the use and risk of this drug—a gesture to inform the general public.  But seen through the lens of ethical and rhetorical criticism, it is a grossly misleading and almost incomprehensible communication that does more to distract and confuse the audience than to educate and clarify the research data for them.

Keep in mind that Pfizer knows very well how to communicate technical information to consumers very clearly in the literature of consumers that accompanies the drug when it is dispensed—legible print, a hierarchy of headings, audience-centered text.  This TV ad, however,appears to attempt to communicate important technical risk information but does so in a way that almost guarantees misunderstanding or miscommunication.  Caveat emptor.


Allen, Nancy. “Ethics and Visual Rhetorics: Seeing’s Not Believing Anymore.” Technical Communication Quarterly 5/1 (1996): 87-105.

Manning, Alan and Nicole Amare. “Visual-Rhetoric Ethics: Beyond Accuracy and Injury.” Technical Communication 53/2 (May 2006): 195-211.

Professor Paul M. Dombrowski

Department of English

University of Central Florida

Orlando, Florida  32816