Myriad Genetics' new Breast Cancer Advertising: Effective or Harmful?

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Imagine this TV ad. Pretty young mom and her small children, driving along a deserted road on a dark and rainy night. Suddenly, a tree crashes down in front of the car. Mom swerves to avoid it, runs off the road and, thankfully, is able to pull over safely. But she’s unable to get around the tree. As she glances in her rearview mirror, a shadowy figure appears out of the underbrush. Oh, no… is it a serial killer, or someone coming to help? Luckily, she has one of those in-vehicle security and communication devices that locates her via GPS, and sends help immediately. SAVED¬–by technology. And it only cost her $200 a year, plus the price of installation.
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    If you saw that ad, would you march down to the nearest car dealer and demand to have it installed–immediately? Or would you weigh the cost against the likelihood of being on a deserted road at night, with your kids, having a tree crash in front of you, and seeing a mystery figure sidle up to the car?

    Myriad Genetics, a biotechnology company that develops and markets therapeutic and molecular diagnostic products, yesterday launched a TV spot in the New York City, Providence, Hartford, and Boston markets aimed at making women aware that certain genetic mutations increase their risk of breast cancer. The 60-second ad will run for six months, into the spring of 2008, and will be accompanied by radio and print ads (look for it as an overwrap on People magazine). But, there’s raising awareness, and scare tactics; some think Myriad’s ad edges into the latter category.

    Showing a quick succession of young and middle-aged women, all of whom voice a variation on the statement “breast cancer runs in my family,” the ad encourages women to get tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations, which do in fact increase a woman’s likelihood of both breast and ovarian cancer significantly. But only about 1 in 400 women in the general population has the mutation (the percentage is higher for Ashkenazi Jewish women). And Myriad’s test costs $3,120. Would you spend $3,120 to find out whether you’re that 1 in 400? What price peace of mind, with those kinds of odds?

    Myriad claims it simply wants to raise women’s awareness. But it’s brought an inquiry from the Connecticut attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who’s quoted in today’s New York Times, saying, “We’ve determined that there’s enough serious and significant doubt about the accuracy of some of their claims that we feel a strong need to investigate.” Myriad wants to raise women’s awareness about a very, very slight chance that they’re at increased risk of breast cancer. They also want to sell their test, which undoubtedly they’ve spent megabucks developing. They are, after all, a for-profit business, not the National Institutes of Health.

    Bottom line? The ad campaign will no doubt produce significant anxiety in many women who don’t need any more stress in their lives. It may produce a tidal wave of demand for medical services that are already over-taxed dealing with patients who actually do have cancer. And while it will also, undoubtedly, save some women’s lives, with regular checkups and competent care, those women would probably have known of (and addressed) their risk anyway. It’s the women least at risk who’ll be most adversely (and unnecessarily) affected by Myriad’s campaign. And that’s unfortunate indeed.
Published On: September 11, 2007