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Selling the dream

How biotech ads stimulate scientist's pleasure centers

Thomas Robey 9 September 2007

Utopian fantasies: scientists are not exempt

The targeting of senior students by scientific supply companies seems about as wily as it comes

In AMC’s new television series, Mad Men, ad agency hotshot Don Draper proclaims, “advertising is based on one thing, happiness.” How would the guys on Madison Avenue deal with scientists, I wonder? By drawing upon our sources of pleasure, of course! But aren’t scientists objective, passionless automatons, unmovable by subjectivity and suggestion? In the event that this widely held belief isn’t true, let me ask the question: what makes scientists happy?

Is it the thrill of a discovery? The moment you realize that you have knowledge that no one else has ever known? Or is happiness more concrete, as the sociologists of science would have you think? If the ads I encounter represent scientists’ subconscious urges, I’m going to have to put my money with sociologist Bruno Latour and the folks who would represent scientists as actors engaged in a network highly dependent on wordsmithing. This is obvious, you say: careers in science are built upon sterling publication records and grant-writing ability. This may be true, but as a young scientist, I only have a fledgling’s experience in either. I draw my data from science’s front line: product shows and corporate mailers.

Irresistible Promega offering a lot more than a DNA purification kit

It’s ironic that the folks priming to leave the lab are among the best decision-makers about supply ordering. As a senior graduate student, I certainly know more now about the number of DNA extractions we do or which are the best antibodies for histology than when I was a newbie. Is this why I pay closer attention to product information now, or is it the free food at the product shows? Maybe it’s both. The targeting of senior students itching to get out of Dodge by scientific supply companies seems about as wily as it comes.

Take for example the ad (left) announcing: “Thesis delivered ahead of plan: Faster nucleic acid purification supports your productivity”. Frankly, I’d like to see some sort of warranty on this promise. In the picture, Promega’s model for a grad student smugly asserts an ability to finish his work earlier than the month-and-a-half lead-time his graduate school requires before the oral defense.

Passing muster Better publishing through technology

He had time to shave; the circles under the eyes lend him a little credibility. One of my committee members told me that writing a dissertation was an academic exercise that, like the general exam, could build my grant-writing skills. By this reasoning, we can mark one for the “grant writing as a source of happiness” column.

What about the cynical scientist’s other source of happiness: her publication record? Don’t worry; Promega’s competition, Qiagen, has a bead on that seratonin source (see ad, right). If my papers came back with a big red “Accepted!” stamp on them like that, you can bet that my feel-good neurotransmitters would be on overload. For proof, look no further than the ebullient lab coat-wearing scientist sharing her good news with a colleague. Maybe next time I get an email with an accept decision, I’ll whip out my stamps and ink pads for a little arts and crafts project. (Note to self: pick up some rubber stamps on the way home.)

I think the ad folks might know a little more about the business of scientists than we care to admit.