Flashback to the ’80s: ‘I’m Not a Doctor, But I Play One On TV’
One of the most fantastic things about ads is that they don't have to make sense to work. If there's any doubt about this, the success of the famous "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV" spot – which debuted in 1984 in an attempt to sell Vicks cough syrup – should dispel it.
The original commercial – which is virtually impossible to find these days – featured actor Chris Robinson. He opened the ad with his famous line and then went on to explain the virtues of Vick's Formula 44 cough syrup.
Robinson, who had begun his career in the '50s as a stunt man and B-movie actor, was cast by Vicks because he played Dr. Rick Webber on General Hospital. He wasn't just any old actor, that is, he was an actor playing a doctor on the show that was the most popular soap opera in America for most of the '80s. (General Hospital, which premiered in 1963, is the longest running American soap opera in history and the third longest-running scripted show in the world, after a pair of British series: The Archers, a radio soap which began in 1951, and Coronation Street, a TV soap that began in 1960.)
Dr. Webber – who made his first appearance on General Hospital after returning from Africa, where he had been presumed dead in a plane crash – was first played by actor Michael Gregory from 1976 to 1978. Robinson took over the part in '78, and steered the character through several steamy love triangles and the tragic death of an adopted son in a fiery car accident. By 1984, he was an eminently recognizable face to viewers of American daytime television. So Vicks came up with an ad campaign that banked on the fact that even though he wasn't a doctor, he did play one on TV, which meant that audiences could surely trust him to dispense advice about the efficacy of medicines.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, soon after the release of the ads Robinson was convicted of income tax evasion. He had to serve his prison sentence during nights and weekends to continue acting on the show – who doesn't love Hollywood? – which did nothing to derail his career, but did make him a less than perfect face for ads about the reliability of medical products.
In the classic soap opera tradition, Vick's immediately shifted course by casting a new actor in the exact same ad campaign and hired Peter Bergman. He was then famous for playing Dr. Cliff Warner on the soap All My Children (a character noted in soap opera lore for marrying the same woman four times) before going on to win numerous Emmys for his work on The Young and the Restless. Because of its availability on the internet, it's the Bergman spot that's usually remembered today.
Peter Bergman in a 1986 Vicks Commercial
But the history leading up to the Vicks ad itself is as least as complicated as the histories of the fake doctors who appeared in it. The rules surrounding commercials like this are governed by the so-called "white coat rule," which is a long-standing piece of legislation prohibiting actors from playing doctors in ads for over the counter medical products, or products for which specific medical claims are made. Actors are allowed to play doctors, however, in commercials promoting products for which a physician's intervention is needed -- meaning you have to go see a real doctor after you see the ad, who will (hopefully) set you straight about the actual ramifications of the product you've seen on television.
There's also a long history of actors playing doctors in ads the predates the cheeky way that Vicks foregrounded the fact. From 1969 through 1976, for example, actor Robert Young played the title character on the show Marcus Welby, M.D. Taking advantage of this fact, Sanka cast him in a series of commercials in which he talked about the health advantages of their caffeine-free coffee.
Robert Young Pitching The Health Benefits of Sanka
And even before this, actors were playing doctors to pitch things that are certainly not healthy, like cigarettes.
Camel – The Brand that Doctors Smoke!
So the "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV" ad campaign didn't invent the idea contained in its slogan. It just put a name to what had already been happening for a long time on television. In doing so, it continued the trend of bringing to the screen a higher level of self-awareness about commercials.
Although we might tend to think that the idea of ironic advertising was only invented in the last decade or two, it should be noted that the 1980s were full of it, from the famed "Where's the beef" campaign for Wendy's, to the much more openly ironic Joe Izuzu ads.
Joe Izuzu Lies About His Car
By 1993, viewers were already so aware of the basic silliness of this conceit that The Simpsons could parody it in an episode where Homer visits the Duff Beer brewery and sees a vintage ad where a doctor proclaims that the benefits of drinking Duff are that it fills up your "Q zone."
Paradoxically though, making us aware of the deception of advertising – actors playing doctors, or people having a good time drinking beer, or people suffering from mental illness – doesn’t actually make us believe in the merits of the product any less. Instead, it seems to make us believe in them even more. The basic gambit of these commercials seems to be that if we are aware that someone is not a doctor but is pretending to be one, then we will actually somehow be more inclined to trust them than we would be if we don't know that they aren't really a doctor.
Maddeningly, we somehow trust the man who mysteriously reappeared from a near-death experience in Africa and engaged in a series of love affairs so complex it takes years of viewing to understand them to give us advice on health products, even though we know, and he tells us, that he's not really a medical expert at all. It makes no sense. But that’s advertising.