At first, they were sold like any other pills, in a bottle. Those were the pills Doris Wagner took in the early 1960s. When she was having trouble remembering whether she'd taken her daily pill, her husband, David, nagged her, asking "constantly" about it. So he turned to the pill's packaging for a solution, eventually coming up with the now-familiar circular pack of pills labeled by day of the week.
Wagner brought his prototype to drugmakers, some of whom were wary. A few months after he showed it to Ortho Pharmaceutical, however, the company released birth control pills in its new Dialpak—which looked awfully similar to Wagner's circular packaging. Wagner and the company eventually agreed on a payment and royalties. Other companies also paid him royalties. In the end, Wagner sold the patent rights to Ortho Pharmaceutical.
As more and more drugmakers adopted designs similar to Wagner's, they found with them a prime marketing opportunity. They used it to appeal to doctors—most of whom were men—and their concerns that their women patients weren't responsible enough to take a pill every day.
"Easy for you to explain ... for her to use," read an Ortho Pharmaceutical ad for its Dialpak-packaged pills. "New 21-day Dialpaks remember for her," read another ad.
Birth control packaging eventually morphed into rectangles, as drugmakers tried to mimic not makeup compacts but wallets, wrote historian Patricia Peck Gossel in "Packaging the Pill."
Some pharmacies now group a patient's pills by time of day.
Though the packaging itself has changed form over the decades—and though some of the paternalistic motivations behind it have been shed—it's still motivated by getting people to correctly take their medications correctly.
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