Codebreaking: Pristiq treats you like the automaton you are

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Fresh from the Fritz Lang Institute of Psychopharmacology comes Pristiq, an antidepressant targeted at women who “feel like they have to wind themselves up to get through the rest of the day.”

Pristiq may be a wonderful and helpful drug, but there is something unsettling about this advertisement. What is the meaning of the toy? Why does the cured patient smile at the toy, and carry it around with them?

The slowing of the wind-up toy is supposed to be a metaphor for the drained and listless feeling that depression imposes on its sufferers. Taking Pristiq winds up the toy, sending it chugging happily through its day. The idea is that the depression isn’t part of you, it’s not your personality, but rather the result of some breakdown in the biochemical machinery that drives your personality.

Okay, so if that’s the metaphor, why is the depression patient smiling at it, and why do they then pick it up carry it around with them?

The commercial seems to go beyond the understandable wind-up metaphor to elevate the toy to the status of something magical, like the patient’s familiar–the conjugate externalized spirit of the woman vested with all the woman’s powers. When the women see the little toy zipping along, they smile because they know it is them. Treat the clockwork familiar, and treat its human counterpart. It’s weirdly magical.

The Pristiq ad is straddling the philosophical fence, trying to draw a distinction between ephemeral personality and the neurological brain. On the one hand, it takes an explicitly materialist view of depression, namely that the illness of depression is not who you are–not your personality–but rather a breakdown in the receptors, pathways, and machinery that power your personality. But implicit in this is a dualist view: if the machinery of your brain and its effects on your behavior are not “you,” then what are you? What does “you” refer to?

Specifically, where is your personality if not embedded within or emergent from that very machinery which the ad externalizes? If “you” is not the chemically imbalanced person suffering from depression, if “you” is the thing that will be restored once Pristiq floods your receptors like STP in a ’67 Stingray, then this true “you” is somewhere else, nonspecific. This is the materialism-dualism dilemma at the heart of all advertising for psych drugs. There is tremendous marketing risk in advertising that psych drugs will change you (which is precisely what they do). So it’s safer to say that the drug treats an illness and insodoing brings back the old you or the true you, which is someplace nebulous beyond the reach of the drug.

Drug ads, all of them, are dualist for precisely this reason. The science behind them is completely materialist and scientific, by the messages in their advertising are the opposite. They are vaguely touchy-feely and blandly spiritual in an Andrew Weil/Deepak Chopra sort of way. And it’s because of this philosophical dilemma that you get ads for anti-depressants that depicts women suffering from depression carrying around clockwork familiars like witches accompanied by cats.

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25 Responses to Codebreaking: Pristiq treats you like the automaton you are

  1. “Familiar” is a great term, but as this is alchemy the better term is homunculus. The ad is straight out of Jung.

    Search on “pristiq and doll ad” and look what adjective comes up most frequently: “creepy.” Creepy = uncanny= the double that is the embodiement of all your repressed impulses.

    When Jung was in grade school, he carved a ruler into a man, with a top hat and wool coat and painted it black, made a little bed for it– and then hid it, upstairs. Jung later explained that the purpose of the homunculus (his word) was to give him comfort (whenever he was sad, he’d go look at it)– but the real purpose of it was that it was a secret. No one knew about it, and “the individual on his lonely path needs a secret” to remind him of his isolation, but to solidify his individuality. But Jung knew that that homunculus represented himself– what he wanted to become. He was incomplete- the homunculus was the total man.

    The thing to understand about the homunculus is that it is the complete person, it is the “becoming.” So that woman isn’t the “real her,” the homunculus is the real her.

    Note that it is the wind up toy, not the human woman, that is “broken, ” and then gets fixed. Pastabagel referenced this as a proxy for biology, but even more deeply is the lingering suspicion among most patients that they are not really who they are supposed to be; not just damaged or ill, but when they compare themselves to the little man they have hidden upstairs, they’re a long way off.

    The ad is saying, there is a real you, Pristiq will help you” get at it” but in order to make it logical, it has to depict the real you as outside of you. And if it is outside of you(r body) then is it really you? Of course not. That’s why homunculi in alchemy are always represented as inside a flask.

    Note that no one else sees the doll even though it’s in plain sight. They’re distracted by the vibrant human projection, which is brought to you by Pfizer.

  2. Robert says:

    The truly amazing thing about that ad was that the majority of it was taken up with an emotionless reading-through of a series of obviously legally stipulated warnings. This, juxtaposed with shots of the walking, expressionless doll, was utterly terrifying.

    I’d say you’re about right. The drug is given to you not as a way to deal with a personal problem, but as a quick fix to set your gears in order. You are an automaton until you are given the drug. Effectively they’re giving you a soul. “Before us, life was hard. Things were difficult. You wanted to have meaning, but you didn’t want to have to suffer for it. Now, take this pill, and you can hang out in your stupid antiques shop all day. You can even lecture people about how great the antiques are. No need for friends, smile at people through a dusty window!”

    There’s something humorous about being pitched something so, as you rightly say, Deepak-Chopra-esque and spiritual, when half the ad is someone saying “This pill may cause spontaneous immolation, drought, sweating, violence, suicide, depression, anger, spitting.” Which all implies that: “If it doesn’t work, you won’t get your soul. Things will remain hard, plus your shit will be awkward for a few weeks.”

    I think we might be seeing the effects, in recent culture, of the whole deterministic view of the mind beginning to seep into things. A lot of violent self-assertion and a pill that will wind you up so hard you’ll never have to be wound up again. It should be “Pristiq: It was inside you all along” or “Pristiq: There is no spoon”.

    Or, you know, something else.

  3. boeotarch says:

    The only thing I really have to add is that the dualism allows the patient to seek help (medication) without having to admit failure or weakness. If their view was purely materialistic then there’d be no escaping the fact that the you that’s broken is the only you there is.

  4. BluegrassJack says:

    When we get a bacterial infection, a 2-week course of antibiotics will often cure it. My body may never need that or those antibiotics during the rest of our life. When we get a viral infection, anti-viral drugs may suppress the outbreak, but never “cure” it. Those drugs may be needed for the rest of your life to handle a “flare-up”.

    I don’t know how a drug company can discretely tell you that some “depression” is actually integral to your personality. If that personality quirk renders you dysfunctional for periods of your life, then Pristiq is telling you that taking Pristiq may make you less of an automaton going thru the motions during thbose periods.

  5. CarbonCopy says:

    Speaking from personal experience with anti-depressants they certainly change you. The ad is really disturbing because it does show about how it feels to be on them. Like you are externally or
    artificially motivated.

    When I was taking the drug I certainly felt different. I was actually ready to get out of bed in the morning, I had a much easier time talking to people and I was a lot more tolerant of things not going my way. I was even happy to sit in my office every day. The problem was I was happy just sitting there. I didn’t do any work and felt great. I was happy to just be awake and alive and sitting back in my chair. I was happy but it just didn’t feel right.

    I know the doctor told me that some people just have a chemical imbalance. I am sure that the chemical levels in my brain can be off from what is considered “normal” and the drugs changed that. Is that imbalance part of who I am?

    I have trouble with the question “What is really ‘you’?” I feel like I don’t know now. I know what I was used to. Having it change through chemicals makes it blurry because I saw it change. It didn’t
    change what I thought was right or wrong or any of my values but I didn’t feel like the same person. I don’t know which way I am better off, but I know I didn’t like being on the drugs. Maybe just because it was unfamiliar and different. Is it weird to not like being happy all the time?

    As far as relating to the ad I think they have to present it as “The real you is the happy you and the
    drug will fix that.” Is there even an alternate way to present it? Also, I realize the ad is made by a
    drug company for the drug that they sell, but it is a subtle way of making people gravitate to drugs for an answer to their problems.

    • BluegrassJack says:


      What an insightful piece you’ve written. Congratulations!

    • boeotarch says:

      I’ve asked myself this same question- I have a strong family history of depression and during one low point, I tried antidepressants, only to quickly start seeing them as a crutch. I abruptly stopped taking them (which, I learned later, is hazardous- look, I don’t read warning labels very thoroughly) and I’ve since accepted that, for better or worse, medical condition or not, this is a feature of my life that I don’t want to get rid of. Because fuck being happy for no reason. I’d rather struggle and push myself and achieve and still be unsatisfied, than just inoculate myself against unhappiness and go through life as a wind-up doll.

      • Robert says:

        I feel I might as well chime in that I’ve been on antidepressants for about a year, had a really good experience with them, and absolutely do not have any experience of feeling blunted, useless, artificial, etc. I do feel calmer, more cold, more logical, but you come to see this as a benefit when you’ve spent years of your life banging your head against the wall and trying to kill yourself. I think a lot of the talk about antidepressants creating “zombies” and so forth is pretty groundless.

        As for boeotarch, – perhaps you need a crutch. I’m not talking about you specifically, or insulting you – I’m just saying that life is more complicated than some kind of linear, narrative Nietzschian struggle for personal truth.

  6. Guy Fox says:

    The doll is her totem, just like in Inception. When it’s running, she’s in her real life; when it stops, she knows she’s in the unreal state of depression. Pristiq is her ‘kick’.

    Although I like the Jung anecdote, Pastabagel’s description sounds more like an anti-voodoo doll. Instead of putting needles in its eyes, she winds it up to make it’s referent (herself) feel better. Familiar, not so much.

  7. Robert says:

    “I’d rather struggle and push myself and achieve and still be unsatisfied, than just inoculate myself against unhappiness and go through life as a wind-up doll.” Sorry to fixate on you, old bean, but I think there’s something in this.

    I think that one of the fundamentals here is that as long as people think that “happiness” and “unhappiness” are fundamental states of the “I” – as in, “I am happy, therefore I can work”, there’s a kind of weird syllogistic logic that functions here. “I am happy” + “I can work” becomes “I can work because I am happy” – and then when you’re not happy, you can’t work – and, conversely, when you can’t work, you’re not happy. So a retrospective link is made between activities that are only partially complementary/integrated.

    I think the real problem with antidepressant marketing is that we’re shown people with the impression that “happiness” is a fundamental. “I was happy, so I could work – and now I’m not happy, so I can’t.” And the pill will fix that, yes, to an extent – but things are more complex. So long as it’s unclear that “happiness” and “work” are very complex, interrelated but not singularly dependent things, we’re vulnerable to the kind of marketing that says: “you’ve come to see “you” as a solid state, – and now you’ve passed out of it, for a number of complex reasons. Hence, you’re no longer “you”! Here’s a chance to leap back into that solid state where you “could work” and “were happy”.”

    The whole of human thought is very complex and is constantly moving through new patterns, new states. So long as we see humans as “solid state machines”, with certain values like “happiness” and “unhappiness”, we’ll fail to see what antidepressants really are, which is much less than the concept suggests. They’re just medications that do a certain thing. Whatever you think they’re doing to your “I” is only secondary.

    A) I know I may be using “solid state” wrong, but I’m only four years old, so cut me some slack.
    B) This isn’t some kind of posh English tirade against boeotarch, I just got some good ideas from him/her. One wouldn’t reduce oneself to posting posh English tirades.

  8. Robert says:

    C) I’d suggest an analogy, where we could say: your examinations of the car engine and your basic maps of what you’ve gleaned of its function are good for a cursory understanding, but when it comes to complex functions and/or engine repair, they’re inadequate. So we need to find an engineer, as it were – one for the brain. And there aren’t any. So we need some of those.
    D) Sorry for cluttering up your gorgeous post. And yes, I realise I’ve basically re-said what was in the post, but it’s too late for that.

    • BluegrassJack says:

      Robert may be on antidepressants, but he sure has a healthy sense of humor (because of/despite the ADs). Maybe something to do with feeling “calmer, more cold, more logical”.

      The genius of Thomas Jefferson placing “..the pursuit of happiness” in our Declaration of Independence has always amazed me. What other nation on earth (in the 1700s at least) would include such a weird phrase in a major state document? Then, Jefferson deliberately never defines what happiness actually is. Happiness is such a warm and fuzzy term that it means different things to different people. “Taxation without representation” is specific to the point of blunt. A pirate with 5 wenches, and a heterosexual monk reading sacred texts in a monastery are both “Happy”.

      • Robert says:

        Pretty fast and loose with the word “healthy” there ;)
        I think that’s the deal, isn’t it – “happy” is always defined from the outside. If you have to earnestly ask, then you’re probably not looking from within – “Am I happy?” is always a question asked from outside of yourself. And by placing this outside of even the limits of your control (whereas before you could say you were happy because you had morals, or you had this or that, or you had God) and putting it in the hands of chemicals, you can be diagnosably unhappy.

        I suppose the real question is: how much of it IS chemicals, and how much of it is psychology? (if we’re to draw a line, of course.) – we can critique the way an advert treats us like automatons, but we’re not sure we aren’t automatons; maybe all the struggling WAS in vain.

        (sidenote: from what I’ve seen of depression, the act of trying to get out of it is the same mechanism that got you into it: setting up an idealized self and punishing yourself for not living up to it. But I’m stupid and I live in a cave full of bats made of shit, so what do I know.)

  9. mercurialmind says:

    My personal experience with antidepressants is that they don’t produce the same amount of improvement that I experienced with a natural remission. During a natural remision I experienced a dramatic change in personality which was similar to the description given by CarbonCopy. I believe that ideally a health person should be happy to be alive and that happiness shouldn’t be something one has to constantly earn. It seems to me like the perception that we must earn happiness is the result of our puritanical roots.

    What is interesting to me is that I still am as confused about who I really am just as much as CarbonCopy appears to be. Am I the depressed individual who feels like she has to constantly worry about what other people think or the happy one who thinks she deserves to be happy without doing anything.

    Another question I have is if a person is happy during childhood and grows more depressed with age what is their real personality?

    • Robert says:

      Not trying to be pedantic, but how do you define “personality”? The qualities linking the person who was happy during their childhood with the person who grew depressed with age are pretty tenuous: a name, a few memories, some social conventions. If you say that the personality is how you appraise yourself – the “I” looking from the outside at the self in the context of the social, of the self’s interactions and shit like that – then the “real” personality is whatever’s going on at that specific moment, the same way a flower blooms into fullness and dies, but neither stage is its “real” stage because the moment you try to define one as real, you exclude the other and end up with only half the reality.

      Also, you’re not the depressed this or the happy that. You’re just this sort of thing with a bunch of words for itself. From my very limited experience of “getting better”, the process of learning to cope with what you “are” is unfathomable and completely untranslatable. It’s sort of like hitting your head against the wall for so long that the wall gets tired.


      • mercurialmind says:

        Personality might be defined by a pattern of behavior in a variety of situations. Your analyis of what is “real ” sounds like something from quantum mechanics which I agree with to a degree since personality according to psychologists is hard to measure. I brought up the question simply because many psychiatrists look at chronic depression as a personality disorder – especially when it doesn’t respond to drugs.

        From your description any attempt at communicating moods is futile. I agree most communication or self evaluation is imperfect however for the sake of science one has to make some attempt.

        • Robert says:

          Oh, well, of course, yes. I’m not trying to say we should all just shut our mouths, the world thrives on ambiguity. And it could well be, – in fact, chronic depression probably does have firm roots in biology and psychology. What I’m saying about mood is that it’s wrapped up in language, and language is full of ambiguities and holes. I’m not sure whether the next thing to do would be to propose that we all start speaking numbers.

          • Robert says:

            I’m going to get kicked off this fucking website soon, but: taking a kind of quasi-Lacanian stance, the other thing would be that when it comes to the “real” self, that’s probably always located in the Big Other. Any time you want to talk about a certain, fixed state of yourself, your words are kind of addressed to and dependent upon this external, huge symbolic thing that mandates you as being this or that. And the result of this radical externality of the self is that adverts like this one start making sense, with the woman’s little doll of herself being the conduit between her and the Big Other, a little voodoo doll.

  10. Pingback: Is depression a personality issue? « Indigo Rhythms

  11. mercurialmind says:

    I think my experience with my “real” self , during natural remission, is rather similar to the ideal self (Big other) that is presented by the pharmaceutical company(society) in this ad. Perhaps that is why I don’t have as much of a problem with the ad like some other people. It seems to me that this “real” or ideal self is similar across most cultures. Many cultures try to reach this ideal self through religious practices such as meditation or trance- the ultimate goal being a trancendance of ego or “I”. Medication can perform a similar transformation however to some people it can seem uncomfortable because it seems like he/she is not in control. I have read somewhere that antidepressants are more likely to also produce a dysphoric type of hypomania-maybe that might account for this negative experience.

    • Robert says:

      It seems to me that this “real” or ideal self is similar across most cultures. Many cultures try to reach this ideal self through religious practices such as meditation or trance- the ultimate goal being a trancendance of ego or “I”.

      – The problem is that the ideal self is just another instance of the “I”. The “I” is bound up tightly with the ideal self, the ego-ideal. You can only know what is your “ideal self” via your ego, – if anything, reaching the point of an ideal self is far more egomaniacal than just having an ego in the first place.

      Ultimately, I honestly don’t think it’s possible to “transcend” your Ego, or your “I”. Partially because they’re somewhat different – if the ego is simply the device that mediates subjectivity, then it’s got to be in apes. But apes don’t have language, so they can’t have “I”. They can’t speak it, so they can’t think in it. If you wanted to transcend your ego, that’s an egotistic behaviour. The only way it might look as though you’d done so is if you were able to turn your subject (“I”) into some sort of terrible, sinthomic device that didn’t have any function.

      • Robert says:

        Idiot. When I said about the ego that it mediates subjectivity, I meant that it allows for a kind of “reasonable” action, so that the person/ape isn’t just running around shitting and then screwing its own shit.

  12. mercurialmind says:

    When I suggested it was possible to transcend one’s ego I meant that the individual would lose a sense of being separate or different from others. It seems like this would generally lead to a person having greater empathy for others. During a remission, for example, I have felt less aggravated by other people since I felt like I had more in common with them. That doesn’t seem egotistical to me.

    • mercurialmind says:

      When using the word ego I am using the following definitions:

      1. Ego is a Latin word meaning “I”, cognate with the Greek “Εγώ (Ego)” meaning “I”, often used in English to mean the “self”, “identity” or other related concepts.

      2. the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.