March 1, 2021

The Nick of Time: Multimillion-Dollar Jonas Ad Raises Controversy

man holding hand over face

Nick Jonas had an interesting February. This past weekend, he hosted Saturday Night Live, but earlier this month, a Super Bowl ad he appeared in was criticized. An Esquire article on Jonas’s ad and its blowback was written by editor-at-large Dave Holmes who, like Jonas, has Type I diabetes. The ad was for the Dexcom G6 continuous glucose monitor (CGM), the unobtrusive wearable sensor and transmitter that sends a person’s glucose numbers to a smart device or receiver every five minutes.

Both Jonas and Holmes use Dexcom CGMs for their Type 1 diabetes, and Holmes credited “the many times a Dexcom has saved my life.” “The Dexcom is a miraculous device,” he wrote. “More people should know about it. A hot, healthy young star like Nick Jonas pulls Type 1 into the spotlight, diminishes stigma, and increases visibility. Representation matters, and so does brand awareness for a product that can keep its user alive.” But, he noted, the ad “raises important questions. Some are uncomfortable.”

Advances in technology open new horizons of possibility, but also make cost sensitivity more palpable than ever. This is particularly true in diabetes, where the cost of insulin has skyrocketed, and CGMs like the Dexcom G6 cost hundreds of dollars every month.

Holmes pointed out that the famously pricey Super Bowl airtime cost $5.5 million. That alone, he noted, “could get 1,300 people up and running on the system for a full year.” On the other hand, the ad put the newly approved G6 in front of 96 million people, and since more than 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes, that’s nearly 10 million people who may have learned life-saving information.

Whenever the public is discussing the “best” use of funds, it’s hard to get consensus. Certainly, though, celebrities discussing prescriptions aren’t new. In the 1950s, Milton Berle was known for joking about his use of the anti-anxiety drug Miltown (meprobamate). In 1998, Bob Dole, then a senator and a recent presidential candidate, spoke about erectile dysfunction in the first TV ad from Viagra.

Celebrity spokespeople have been able to reach the public to reduce shame and stigma, and explain that symptoms can be both treatable and worth treating. The educational power of a celebrity is enormous. Consider “The Katie Couric Effect,” christened in 2000 after colonoscopy rates jumped 20 percent following the Today Show host’s live process of the experience, which she did after her husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer.

However, it’s more important than ever to be aware of the perpetual tension between marketing and price. Cancel culture and hot takes are everywhere, and it’s next to impossible to make any costly public decision without backlash. And access to care and treatment is a constant, very real problem that affects a great many people very personally.

Companies face a lot of arguments these days both for and against advertising. Is it a product that can really help people? Can keeping a company strong keep people employed? If money is spent on a donation, is it truly socially responsible and effective, or could it be seen less charitably by skeptics?

There are few simple answers. But evaluating the plans for a campaign, and involving the right people in the process (for instance, patient communities, or those most affected by access issues), can ensure that the best work can be done to help brands help the most people.