Gender, rhetoric, pharmaceuticals, health, communication


On June 8, 2006, Merck announced the debut of Gardasil, the world's first vaccine found successful in preventing human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, a sexually transmitted infection that is one of the main causes of certain cancers in men and women, including cervical, vulvar, penile and anal cancers. To promote the vaccine's release, Merck launched Gardasil's "One Less" advertising campaign that included television commercials, print ads and a consumerfocused website (, each promoting the message that "you" could now be "one less woman" affected by cervical cancer ("One Less" campaign). The vaccine, tested and approved only for females age 9-26, was advertised to this age group, as well as parents or guardians responsible for making medical decisions for female minors. As the campaign launched, commercials depicted females laughing and enjoying hobbies while mentioning the positive decision they made to receive the Gardasil vaccine. Many commercials also included portrayals of mothers talking happily about their decision to get their young daughters vaccinated. Interestingly, male figures were completely left out of Gardasil's "One Less" campaign ads, despite the fact that in reality, males administer the vaccine as medical professionals, transmit the infection as sexual partners, and suffer cancers as HPVinfected patients. Males were even left out of the ads as parents, who were always portrayed by women in the ad campaign. iv Informed consumers may have expected all this to change on Oct. 16, 2009 – three years after Gardasil's debut – when the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved the vaccine for use in males age 9-26 to protect against HPV-caused genital warts. Though Merck's vaccine was now accessible to more consumers than ever, the advertising that surrounded this medical breakthrough changed very little. Television commercials for the vaccine still promoted Gardasil primarily to women for the purpose of preventing HPV-related cervical cancer. Again, men were not featured in commercials as medical professionals, parents, guardians, romantic partners, or even as patients able to get the vaccine. Males did begin appearing on the vaccine's official website, however these depictions were limited to showing only young boys, who appeared standing with a mother's protective arm around them. Males that represent the older age range (up to age 26) were never shown. What effect does the lack of male representation have on the verbal and nonverbal message these ads are sending consumers about who fits in the target consumer group, as well as who is at risk for an HPV infection? On a broader level, how does gender representation as a whole affect pharmaceutical advertisements and the adoption of the potentially life-saving products they promote? How does a pharmaceutical technology become "gendered"? How do specific gender portrayals impact the educational aspects of pharmaceutical ads, which may shape a consumer's opinion of who is at risk for an illness, and who is responsible for its treatment or prevention? And how do these gender portrayals connect with, reflect or reinforce v dominant cultural beliefs about the roles males and females play in protecting themselves and others from disease? In this study, I investigate these questions using a blended cultural studies/social sciences research perspective, first looking at the controversial history of direct-toconsumer pharmaceutical advertising and the gender stereotypes that traditionally exist in this form of rhetoric. I then test the affect Merck's gender portrayals has on its ad message in a blind study done with a small sample population, which provides evidence that Merck's ads are confusing and exclusive of certain populations, particularly men. I then investigate how Merck's existing gender portrayals, and strong focus on women, reflect larger historical beliefs on the roles that males and females play in health care and in the family. I show how, through advertising, Gardasil has become "gendered" as a pharmaceutical technology for female children. From here, I will show how pharmaceutical companies, such as Merck, have both reflected and reinforced the belief that women are the primary caregivers to children, how this stereotype is both damaging and statistically incorrect, and how using it targets Gardasil ads to a very narrow population of consumers, miscommunicating the message of who is at risk for illness contraction and perhaps even damaging sales in addition to prevention. I later provide evidence that Merck's current Gardasil ad series and other actions in the marketplace are dangerously misleading certain populations regarding the nature of the HPV virus, the protective abilities of the vaccine, and the populations responsible for accessing Gardasil. I then provide the argument that gendering Gardasil as a "women's technology" is done intentionally by Merck, which has a history of making vi profits a priority over responsibly treating patient health. I conclude by providing detailed suggestions on how Merck can augment their current ad series to de-gender Gardasil to become more medically responsible, and break out of the cycle of portraying men and women using damaging and outdated stereotypes. Instead, my suggestions for changes to Gardasil's advertising approach would make the vaccine's messages appeal to all audiences at risk.


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Graduation Date





Bowdon, Melody


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Arts and Humanities

Degree Program

Texts and Technology








Release Date

May 2012

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)


Arts and Humanities -- Dissertations, Academic, Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Humanities