20 years ago, The Onion invented Zoloft for everything
The Onion predicts the war on straws, profiles a Swede doing well with the ladies, and asks the question, "How would you create your own religion?"
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit May 14, 2003.
This week, we revisit the heydays of Zoloft, watching HBO in a hotel, and the classic column “I'm An Attractive-People Person.”
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What issue is this?
Turns out, I’ve been linking to the 2012 website recently instead of the redesigned 2013 website (Here’s the 2012 version for context). I’m guessing Internet Archive redirected me at one point, and I kept referring to that URL as a starting point. Anyways, The Onion redesigned their website at the start of 2013!1
Those changes were mostly cosmetic, but some front-page headlines were lost. So, in 2013, you wouldn’t know “Mailman Seemed Kind of Drunk” and “Mesopotamia Pacified” existed. I mean, they aren’t the greatest jokes, but they happened!
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Pvt. 1st Class Jessica Lynch was injured and captured by Iraqi Army soldiers on March 23, 2003. She was rescued on April 1 by U.S. special forces. She was very well-known in the U.S. by May 2003.2
“Freed POW Already Sick Of Family” is a generic POW story piggybacking on the Lynch incident. This article is told from the perspective of Pvt. Brent Dobson, who is also a recently rescued POW. Most of the other details are different — Dobson is in a different Army unit, was found in a camp instead of a hospital and had a gunshot wound, among other injuries.
Dobson isn’t all that happy to be home:
"I guess during my ordeal, I'd forgotten that Dad clips his toenails in front of the TV, and that Mom obsessively runs the vacuum every day at 7 a.m.," Dobson said. "If I take one step into the house with my shoes on, she starts shrieking like I just dumped a 40-pound bag of horseshit on the floor."
He’s also forced to attend a huge party and endure his many relatives, including the grandmother who tells him, “Jesus was testing you, Brent, and you passed.” I mean, that’s better than the alternative!
The next day, despite recovering from a broken leg and wrist, Dobson is sent to clean the gutters:
"Yeah, I got roped into that pretty quickly," Dobson said. "Mom told me that since Dad's lumbago3 had been acting up all winter, a lot of yard work went neglected. I thought of pinning the Purple Heart that Donald Rumsfeld awarded me to Dad's shirt as he snoozed in his Barcalounger, but I decided against it."
This is a straightforward Onion story, but I like it. Even war heroes are just regular people to their families.
The other Iraq-related news item is “Bush And Blair's Nobel Nomination.” This seems like a big deal, but it’s not. Anyone can receive a Nobel Peace Prize nomination — if the right elite nominates you.
Anyways, The Onion asked people on the street what they thought. And while I appreciate a good Henry Kissinger-Yasser Arafat joke, this one actually made me laugh:
"It's about time. I'm sick of them always giving the Peace Prize to all those fucking pacifists."
Ron Hadler • Electrician
Pfizer makes an everything drug
Zoloft, the popular brand name for sertraline, is still a widely used medication — the 12th-most prescribed in 2020, according to one estimate. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was Pfizer’s big seller, this antidepressant was widely advertised and practically a household name.
This is a tricky article to assess in 2023. The primary targets are clear: Pharmaceutical companies are an easy target! And most readers knew about drugs like Zoloft, Tylenol or Viagra, so there’s a clear frame of reference.
The Onion’s also making fun of the perception of Americans as overmedicated and trying to wish away their problems with drugs. And yet, while that’s a real element of our society, it’s also true that depression is a real illness, and Zoloft helped many people to one degree or another. Credit to The Onion for making this a silly article rather than mocking people with depression.
The other challenge in 2023 is, of course, Pfizer’s polarized public reputation. But let’s put today’s perceptions aside and ask: Is this a funny satire of a popular drug that was regularly on TV commercials in 2003?
Mostly, yes. This is smarter and more focused than March 2003’s “Prescription-Drug Safety.” The images are fantastic — the quiz and the advertisement photo look real, even if the content is absurd.
I like how specific Pfizer is about Zoloft’s use cases:
Pfizer president James Vernon said the "Zoloft For Everything" campaign will employ print and TV ads to inform potential users about the "literally thousands" of new applications for Zoloft. Among the conditions the drug can be used to treat: anxiety associated with summer swimsuit season, insecurity over sexual potency and performance, feelings of shame over taking an antidepressant, and a sense of hollowness stemming from losing an online auction.
And everyone is a copycat:
On Tuesday, Paxil manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline unveiled its new ad slogan, "Paxil… Give It A Try." Eli Lilly, maker of Prozac, is slated to launch a similar campaign built around the slogan, "Pot Roast Burnt? Husband Home With The Flu? You're Having One Of Those Prozac Days."
“Having One Of Those Prozac Days” feels dangerously real.
Of course, Pfizer warns that you must take Zoloft for at least 8 weeks to notice the difference. You can’t miss out on that revenue!
The Onion’s travel section
“Hostel-Dwelling Swede Getting Laid Big-Time” is fortuitous because Sweden won Eurovision yesterday. It’s also the worthy successor to 1999’s Point/Counterpoint “European Men Are So Much More Romantic Than American Men vs. American Women Studying In Europe Are Unbelievably Easy.”
Anders Perssen, 23, is staying at a real-life hostel in New York City. I love the idea of The Onion getting a tip that “some Swede is getting laid big time!” and sending a reporter to interview him.
Perssen is proud to confirm the rumors are true:
"If I should have known this, I would have stay here before — every summer!" Perssen continued. "I would have come to America as soon as I was 18, just so I can get all the you-know-what whenever I want. But then I would have never leave, right?"
"No, I am kidding to you," added Perssen, turning serious for a moment. "I love Sweden. It is my home."
Credit to The Onion for naming real locations in New York City: the hostel, the bar Half King (RIP), the East Village as a punk scene. The article goes into a shockingly long list of the women Perssen has bedded in just a few weeks.
Much like the 1999 Point/Counterpoint, Perssen’s stereotypical knowledge of America is only matched by Americans’ stereotypical knowledge of Sweden:
"They say Ingmar Bergman, then they say Pippi Longstockings, and then the Volvo car," Perssen said. "We talk about the bands — they sometimes know my favorite now, The Hives,4 or The Hellacopters or Sahara Hotnights, but they usually say ABBA. I do not like ABBA very much, but I am willing to sing along with them to the ABBA if it maybe will get me into the sack later."
Look, this is not an admirable article, but it’s a great parody because, instead of fact-checking anyone, it asks, “What if this Swede is the greatest lover around?”
We have 2 other travel stories:
“Shipwreck Survivors Forced To Endure Ride Home On Disney Cruise Ship”: I know many people who enjoy Disney cruises, but you want to choose them, not get stuck on one. I love how this short article acts as if these survivors ate insects and drank from coconuts:
“Bill said he plans to write a book chronicling his struggle for survival among shuffleboard-playing Lion King fans.”
“Traveler Excited Hotel Has HBO Until He Checks Listing”: The Onion doesn’t say what Dan Peterson wants to view on HBO, but it’s not middling early-2000s movies like “Summer Catch” or the Tracey Ullman show “Tracey Takes On.”5
Area People doing Area Things
“Five-Family Yard Sale Mainly Selling Items To Each Other” is a wonderful Americana story. Spring cleaning! Mild entrepreneurialism! Neighborhood get-togethers!
I grew up on a small dead-end street. So I remember yard sales and other neighborhood events. I assume these still happen, although a 3-day yard sale seems excessive.
The Onion takes a sociological view of this, noting that less than 5% of all revenue was to people outside the 5 families. There’s also the question of why they didn’t just do a swap:
While the event resulted in a zero-sum gain for the participating families, they shunned the implementation of a barter system. Instead, transactions within the closed economy were conducted via the use of cash combined with a marginally intelligible system of color-coded stickers and scrawled notes in spiral-bound notebooks.
The description of the spiral-bound notebooks and stickers is wonderful — a great example of “show” instead of “tell.”
Finally, The Onion talks to an economist who says this is the breakdown of capitalism plaguing “cul de sacs across the nation”:
Any item, by virtue of its existence within the closed system, becomes something with an intrinsic value and built-in level of demand. How else could you explain somebody paying $1.50 for a scratched vinyl copy of Men At Work's Cargo?"
This is not an all-time great Onion story. But it’s a solid parody of something most Americans would recognize and could laugh at. I’m still amazed, 3.5 years into this newsletter, at how regularly The Onion churned out solid jokes and did so with rich storytelling in a newspaper format.
Other Area People items include:
“Nanny Appears In Child's Drawings More Than Mother”: A short joke, but effective. The mother is neither named nor available for comment. Her only mention is, “And here's one of Mommy in her car, driving to work."
“This Absolutely The Last Time Bouncer Cleans Up Vomit”: The joke is pretty much in the headline. Sounds like a rough job.
Plus, here are 2 front-page headlines with a photo. I like both of these.
Were the infographics good?
“The Matrix Reloaded” is the only Matrix movie I’ve seen. I went to the theater with college friends because it was something to do.
The Onion makes fun of the hype and the fanbase as much as the film itself. I love the reference to Laurence Fishburne’s “Matrix” and “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” characters. And Keanu Reeves is wonderful, but that first joke about “digital effects” helping him “act” makes me laugh.
The “illegal downloads” joke is such an early-2000s hot topic, even after Napster’s death.
What columnists ran?
I immediately recognized the headline “I'm An Attractive-People Person” from 20 years ago, but I didn’t remember the column. I assumed this was a column about him breaking up with an unattractive person. Instead, Bennett Adams is at a job interview, and he’s explaining why his connection with attractive people makes him a good candidate.
He learned this skill at age 3, when he realized his neighbor was less attractive than the kids at daycare:
“In the years since, I've met lots of attractive people, and I've liked them all. That's the amazing thing about attractive people. They're all different, yet deep down, they all share one essential, fundamental quality: great looks.”
Look, the genius of this column is that millions of us act this way, whether we realize it or not. And science has validated this Onion column!
Our other column, “All My Religion Needs Now Is A Snazzy Post-Death Scenario,” reimagines religion as something you can logically put together if only you’re studious and creative enough:
I spent months studying the top five major religions and some of the more successful dead ones, then I broke them down thematically and charted the elements they shared. Once I had that visual, Cosmysticism's central text, The Book Of Gunther, pretty much wrote itself. It's really great stuff, too. If I were a lost soul looking for answers in this difficult and bewildering world, I'd be eating Cosmysticism up.
The passages from the Book of Gunther are ridiculous in a good way. But the big problem for Rodney Gunther is the post-death outcome. He recognizes he has to match the promise of faiths like Islam and Christianity without drifting into Heaven’s Gate territory — or worse, bad storytelling:
I thought about some bringing in some giant flying saucer that would take everyone to Neo-Heaven on the Eve of the Great Reckoning, but that seemed way too contrived. Talk about your deus ex machina.
I glossed over this when I first looked at this issue, but that was a mistake. Great concept, great writing.
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week is Scorpio, with apologies to the jokes about Motley Crue, Phil Spector and being trapped in a dryer:
Scorpio | Oct. 23 to Nov. 21
You've never lost sight of your childhood dreams of rainbow-colored pegasus-unicorns, which makes you a truly formidable geneticist.
What holds up best?
I love this issue, but many of the jokes feel slightly dated in one way or another. “College-Aged Daughter Against Using Straws Now” probably holds up best (in terms of relevance) because college students still rebel and because millions of Americans have turned against plastic straws.
What holds up worst?
There’s nothing wrong with “Bush And Blair's Nobel Nomination,” per se, but it was a nonstory in 2003 and is less relevant now.
What would be done differently today?
“Hostel-Dwelling Swede Getting Laid Big-Time” feels like it’d be much different today. Not that no one stays in hostels or hooks up with foreign men, but this is describing a dating/partying scene before dating apps — almost pre-internet.
The Onion reduced its Iraq coverage pretty quickly after the major fighting ended, but in 2023 I suspect there’d be much more emphasis on a war like Iraq. The idea that The Onion ignored the “Mission Accomplished” event — other than maybe this week’s headline “Mesopotamia Pacified” — is shocking to me.
Grateful to have y’all here. Let me know what I’ve missed or forgotten from 20 years ago.
Next week, we’ll revisit a bitter 1990s punk, the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, making CD mixes for your girlfriend, and more.
I hate making those kinds of mistakes! I’ll try to fix the archives (most of 2023’s newsletters, I suspect) when I have time so y’all can see the actual 2013 website.
Most of the initial stories about the attack were embellished or false — making Lynch out to be a Rambo-type who was shot and stabbed. All of this was unfair to Lynch, who never made those claims. Her injuries were real, too, and resulted in years of complications.
I know anybody reading who played “Red Dead Redemption 2” is loving the “lumbago” reference.