Infomercial Disorder: Discovery's Female-Libido "Documentary" Backed By Female Sex-Pill Maker

Last Updated Jun 14, 2010 4:16 PM EDT

Boehringer Ingelheim has quietly persuaded the Discovery Channel to repeatedly run a "documentary" about Female Sexual Dysfunction that feels like an infomercial for flibanserin, the company's sex pill for women that's up for a crucial vote at the FDA on June 18. The documentary ran on three occasions in May and can be seen in four parts on Discovery's web site (one, two, three and four).

Although the film begins by stating "This patient education program was produced with the support of funding from Boehringer Ingelheim," and the company discloses the same information on its site, the actual content of the film doesn't make it clear that Boehringer is promoting a new pill for low libido in women or that there's a controversy over whether FSD even exists.

Historically, drug company involvement in filmmaking has been controversial. Centocor, the Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) unit that markets the anti-inflammatory Remicade, launched a documentary titled "Innerstate" which followed three patients but didn't mention the drug. Although Centocor was upfront about its backing of the movie, some still felt that it was misleading to call the film a "documentary" when the only reason it existed was because a company wanted to promote its drugs.

That appears to be the situation with "Understanding Female Sexual Desire," the Discovery show. While some of the issues it raises are legit -- why should older women who want their sex lives back not explore medical options? -- the entire program is biased. It's essentially one long justification for the existence of FSD and the supposed "female Viagra" cure.

Boehringer appears to be hoping that the show will lay some sympathetic groundwork for the patients who might benefit from the drug. But it isn't being completely transparent about how it's doing that. The disclosures look like those "Funding provided by ..." interstitials you often see on PBS, where the assumption is that the editorial content was divorced from the cash. And if Boehringer really wanted people to draw the link between their pre-approval promotion of flibanserin and the Discovery show, it would have touted the move in its press releases, which make no mention of the programming.