The Ethics of Creativity

Side effects may include generalized paragraph counting, occasional moral discomfort, reference anxiety, and recurring dreams of side effect reels on loop.

I started experiencing some of these symptoms when I began working within the Science and Medicine department over a year ago. While the bulk of my job as a medical editor involves ensuring that claims about conditions and treatments have solid support – creative marketing can often pose bigger ethical questions.

Is it right to tout a stage IV cancer drug’s life-extending properties when a longer life actually means three months, on average, with varied quality of life? Is it insensitive to inspire patients to overcome a serious illness via sharable Facebook messages if the reality of the situation is much graver? Is it appropriate to talk about fatality as a consequence of a condition when it is exceedingly rare?

This is typically when the “moral discomfort” sets in. Being well-versed in the research may be helpful in getting perspective on a disease or its treatment. However, the brightest scientific minds still struggle when it comes to questions of ethics, which don’t always have clear-cut answers.

Working at a creative agency that lives under the idea of “Helping not Selling,” it is critical for us to pay attention to these bigger questions when they arise. Marketing and educating should not be at odds with each other. In communicating information about diseases and treatments to doctors, patients, and the general public, it is possible to present information in a way that’s both creative and responsible.

Thinking critically about the cutting-edge drugs that we market on a daily basis and about the bigger context in which they reside can help us create more effective campaigns. Outside of staying compliant with the Food and Drug Administration by producing accurate, strongly supported, and fair-balanced communications, thinking more broadly about these issues can also lead to greater insight into the people that we want to help at the end of the day. In the words of renowned bioethicist Arthur Caplan*, “If you want to achieve the public good, marry ethics properly with the facts.”


 

*Arthur Caplan, PhD, New York University, School of Medicine, in a 2014 talk for the National Science Board

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