Patent medical advertising, also known as patent medicine advertising, or simply patent medicine, is a type of advertising that uses bright images and often false slogans to convince people to buy a product.
The staple of patent medical advertising is over-the-top, colorful ads filled with unverified claims of remedy. Manufacturers could put things such as fish oil in a brightly colored bottle and claim that it would cure the common cold, with little to no recompense.
Take a look at the advertisement for “Sequah’s Oil and Prairie Flower.” This is a perfect example of patent medicine advertising: the bright red and yellow banners and the red-highlighted text are meant to grab the attention of the observer and draw it towards the ad. It refers to the oil as an “Indian Medicine”, thus making the product seem more mysterious and, to some, spiritual. A banner near the bottom lists all the things the oil supposedly ‘cures’, including “all blood diseases.” Claiming to cure a broad type of illness is typical of patent medicine. In the left-hand oval, to the right of the person standing, is a scroll that reads, “the greatest family medicine ever introduced.” There is also a yellow banner that runs along the bottom which says, “as sure to cure as the summer sun will melt ice.” These kinds of baseless claims are another staple of patent medical advertising.
One of the earliest examples of patent medicine in England were Anderson’s Pills, an early 17th century concoction, whose creator claimed the recipe came from Venice (Young, 1961). With the rise of the American colonies, many Europeans immigrated to America, and brought with them patent medicine. Though it was around from the beginning of the colonies, patent medicine advertising really only gained prominence in the mid-19th century. Patent Medicine was allowed in the United States from the beginning of the colonies until the 1906 Pure Foods and Drugs Act.
Patent Medicine rose to prominence because it drew the eye of the reader and convinced them with strong words and colorful pictures that this medicine would cure all their ailments. In a time where medical science was not very advanced, and amputation and death were still very real treatments for common ailments, this promise of a “miracle cure” was a shining hope in the darkness of illness.
However, not all people believed these ads, in fact, there were thousands of newspaper articles throughout the late 19th and early 20th century condemning patent medicine. The most famous series of anti-patent medicine articles was quite possibly 1905’s “The Great American Fraud,” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, which, as the title suggests, warned against patent medicine as fraudulent and wrong (Young, 1961).
On February 21, 1906, Congress passed the Pure Foods and Drugs Act, which, almost as a side effect, caused the downfall of patent medicine advertising (Young,1961). Sellers were now required to put a list of ingredients on the sides of their product labels. Because of this, sellers could no longer claim to have miracle cures, because people could see the formula and realize the product’s advertising was false. Thus, ended the use of patent medical advertising.
Campbell, R., Fabos, B., Martin, C. R. (2017). Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Young, J. H. (1961). The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Unknown Author. (1937). Commerce Without Conscience Dangers of Patent Medical Advertising. The British Medical Journal, 2 (3994), p.178-179. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25366675
Image Attribution: “Advertisement for Sequah’s Oils and Prairie Flower” by Wellcome Images licensed under CC by 4.0
Written by Nick Hayes, 2017