Tuesday, December 8, 2009

#27: Wilford Brimley

Wilford Brimley is a genuine American hero. A former Marine turned actor, Brimley has always been on the backburner of the American public stage, and his reputation has only ripened as he has aged. You see, Brimley has never let things like irrelevance or a lack of expertise stop him from achieving his American dream. And Wilford Brimley's American dream is to sell you diabetic testing supplies.

If you are thinking of entering medical school, it's important that you become acquainted with the greatness that is Wilford Brimley. Brimley was born in 1934 in Salt Lake City, which makes him a septuagenarian and a Mormon. He gained prominence as an actor for his work in such films as the made-for-TV movie Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. After deciding that it was important for him to use his acting talents for evil rather than for good, he decided to get into the business of making commercials. After making commercials for a number of no-name companies (e.g., Quaker Oats), he eventually landed the role for which he will forever be known: the spokesperson for the diabetic testing supply company, Liberty Mutual.

In this capacity, Brimley has gained mass appeal within two very distinct groups of people: senior citizens and med students. Senior citizens resonate with Brimley's portrayal as the shining knight who has come to guide them to good health in these confusing and ever-changing times. On the other hand, med students know him as that old guy who can't pronounce the word "diabetes" for the life of him.

You see, when Brimley was made spokesperson for Liberty Mutual, nobody in the company worried that he might not be qualified to talk about diabetes, seeing as he had no medical training whatsoever. However, he did have diabetes and he was folksy enough to relate to their target demographic. In their minds, these two qualities made him the perfect salesperson. But as is so often the case, one group's salesperson is another group's buffoon.

It takes something special to grab the attention of the younger generations, like LOLcats or the Star Wars Kid. Wilford Brimley had that special something. Every time he tried to say the word "diabetes," it would always come out sounding like "diabeetus," and the kids couldn't get enough of it. The halls of medical schools everywhere rang for months with the sounds of "beetus-beetus," and comparisons of Brimley's appearance to that of cats were made (I particularly like comparison #4).

It could have stopped there. If it had been one commercial, the med students would have had a good chuckle for a few days and then went back to memorizing anomalies of the reproductive system. But no, like the Little Train that Could, many more videos with Brimley saying "diabeetus" were released. Wilford Brimley and Liberty Mutual were either unaware of his mispronunciation of this fundamental word, or actively encouraged it (perhaps to make him seem more folksy) ... and so his legend grew. With every new commercial that Brimley made, the narrative of "beetus-beetus" was renewed and retold. Remixes of his videos were produced. Fake motivational posters were created. Videos of him were shown in small group sessions. Wilford Brimley became part of our vocation's heritage.

The lessons that can be learned from the story of Wilford Brimley's diabeetus are many, but the one most relevant to the medical student is that diabeetus is a laughing matter; use this to your advantage. Medical students seem like a homogenous bunch from the outside, but spend a few months with them and you will realize that there are few things that all med students agree on. The hilarity of "beetus-beetus" is one of these things! If you find yourself in a situation where you want to talk to one of your classmates but can't think of a suitable topic, feel free to use "beetus-beetus" as a conversation starter. It can make the difference between an everyday acquaintance and a new best friend.