During the summer of 2002, The Oprah Winfrey Show was graced by a visit from Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy holder and running back extraordinaire of the Miami Dolphins. Williams was there to confess that he suffered from painful and chronic shyness. Oprah and her audience were, of course, sympathetic. If Williams, who had been anything but shy on the football field, was in private a wilting violet, how many anonymous citizens would say the same if they could only overcome their inhibition long enough to do so?
To expose one’s shyness to what Thoreau once called the broad, flapping American ear would itself count, one might think, as disproof of its actual sway over oneself. But football fans knew that Ricky Williams was no voluble Joe Namath. Nevertheless, there he was before the cameras, evidently risking an anxiety attack for the greater good—namely, the cause of encouraging fellow sufferers from shyness to come out of the closet, seek one another’s support, and muster hope that a cure for their disability might soon be found.
Little of what we see on television, however, is quite what it seems. Williams had an incentive—the usual one in our republic, money—for overmastering his bashfulness on that occasion. The pharmaceutical corporation GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), through its public relations firm, Cohn & Wolfe, was paying him a still undisclosed sum, not to tout its antidepressant Paxil but simply to declare, to both Oprah and the press, “I’ve always been a shy person.”
To understand why this was considered a worthwhile outlay, we need to know that the drug makers earn their enormous profits from a very few market-leading products for which new applications are continually sought. If those uses don’t turn up through experimentation or serendipity, they can be conjured by means of “condition branding”—that is, coaching the masses to believe that one of their usual if stressful states actually partakes of a disorder requiring medication. A closely related term is more poetical: “astroturfing,” or the priming of a faux-grassroots movement from which a spontaneous-looking demand for the company’s miracle cure will emanate.
In this instance Cohn & Wolfe, whose other clients have included Coca-Cola, Chevron Texaco, and Taco Bell, was using an athlete to help create a belief that shyness, a common trait that some societies associate with good manners and virtue, constitutes a deplorably neglected illness. Given the altruistic aura of the occasion, it would have been tasteless to have Ricky Williams display a vial of Paxil on the spot. But later (before he was suspended from the football league for ingesting quite different drugs), a GSK press release placed his name beneath this boilerplate declaration:
As someone who has suffered from social anxiety disorder, I am so happy that new treatment options, like Paxil CR, are available today to help people with this condition.
There is nothing out of the ordinary in this episode, but that is just why it bears mentioning. Most of us naively regard mental disturbances,…
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