Pill Heds

I've been thinking about drugs names. I don't think I'm alone in my occasional scrutiny of these mysterious, often ridiculous, sometimes brilliant confabulations. (The pharmaceutical business spends a good chunk of their budget on branding and naming and I think this tangential element of design justifies my assessing the results, no? I'm not going into the logo design here, but see this amusing step by step "review" of Ablixa.)

Huge potential money-makers like psychopharmacological agents and erectile dysfunction buttresses have particularly high stakes in naming and design. According to Medscape the cost in 2001 of consultation on naming alone ranged from $100,000 to $700,000. Elsewhere I read the numbers are "easily" $500,000 up to a couple million.

Each drug receives 3 names:
• the chemical name—usually a string of prefixes, numbers and a lot of "ethyls" and "phenyls"
• the International Nonproprietary Name (INN, also known as the generic name)— these names are created from a standardized group of "stem" components which represent different classes of drugs (eg. anti-inflammatories, antidepressants)
• the brand name

here's an example:
  • chemical name 7-chloro-1,3-dihydro-1 methyl-5-phenyl-2H-1,4-benzodiazepin-2-one
  • generic name diazepam (-azepam is used for many antianxiety agents)
  • brand name Valium
Names have to be memorable, convey something medicinal and curative, not interfere with international marketing (ie. should not sound like "bad luck" in Chinese) and not be too similar to something already out there. This last criterion is not only for marketing purposes— the FDA evidently rejects 4 out of 10 names so as to not create confusion and possible medical disasters (for instance Celexa vs Celebrex).

Going through what must surely be a gauntlet of committee presentations and focus-grouping, how on earth do names like Xalkori and Xofigo see the light of day? The New York Times noted that "drug makers have favorite letters, and they run the gamut from X to Z." They quoted James Dettore of Brand Institute and explained;
"the letters X, Z, C and D, according to ...  "phonologics," subliminally indicate that a drug is powerful. "The harder the tonality of the name, the more efficacious the product in the mind of the physician and the end user," he said." 
 According to Slate, though, there might just be a computer algorithm behind all those Xs:
During tough financial times... many drug manufacturers skip human consultants and use computerized algorithmic name generators because they just want something that will get quick approval from the FDA and don’t care how ridiculous the name looks or sounds. //
My not-so-empirical approach to looking at drug names
the word-- how does it sound? how does it look?, associative images–– what does it sound like? what does it bring to mind?, appropriateness–— how well does the name work for what the drug does?

Ambien—pretty good at conveying a zoned-out calm, perhaps a little too techno
Zoloft—  its propping you up, get it?--holding you zoloft
Viagra— brilliant— it's vigorous, it's vital, it's Niagra Falls for chrissakes
Abilify— "this antidepressant has abilified me to be functional!"
Keppra— Strangely elegant and aloof, like the name of an ancient Egyptian deity. Not bad for an anti convulsant

The not-so-greats:
Vioxx— a vanquished Transformers villain— anti-inflammatory now off the market
Viibryd—looking like something you'd find at IKEA (thanks Andrew) this antidepressant doesn't even have an aspirational quality. plus the sound of it seems a bit too manic for a mood stabilizer
Coumadin—a blood thinner that sounds like a mid-level bureaucratic title of the Ottoman Empire; its generic name, warfarin, sounds like a strategic conflict board game
Effexor— this antidepressant reminds me of Gigantor, Space Age Robot
Aubagio— sounds to me like an Italian restaurant you'd find on Staten Island, odd association for drug to treat multiple sclerosis
Stalevo— treats Parkinsons disease but looks like it's a city in Serbia
Simponi Aria— is it part of an Italian opera? an obscure part of the brain (see Wernicke’s area)? No it treats rheumatoid arthritis. Perhaps it leaves you singing.

Fungizone— targets potentially fatal fungal infections; the name sounds appropriate in a blatant ham-fisted way, but I would not like to tell people I was on it.
Latuda—an antidepressant that seems more like a vulnerable area of the lower back; see  "phonologics"mentioned above—this drug doesn't sound man enough to make me happy
Lamictal— looks like a term for a pus-forming condition—not so good for a mood stabilizer/anti convulsant
Zortress—suppresses the immune system but sounds like a 1980s video game
Zingo— just completely wrong


Unknown said...

I came to your site today via David Lebovitz's links that included a scholar's site's post on a messy dining room mosaic floor in the Vatican museum (reminding me of the mosaic work I saw in Sicily), and have had a super fun time browsing your posts - thanks!

So, how about the new drug for women they have dubbed "Addie" - OMG the discussion on PBS Newshour was informative and concluded that this is more of a real (not corporate) poison pill than any other approved drug. I hope the pill pushers don't have their way with it.

Angela Voulangas said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I havent heard about Addie. Sounds like a chummy nickname for Adderall. My BFF Addie.


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