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    A pain! Medical research ads on the Red Line

    The signs in MBTA subways are looking for study guinea pigs. I’m looking for cover.

    These travelers will soon catch a train — and endure an assault of medical-study ads.
    Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff/file
    These travelers will soon catch a train — and endure an assault of medical-study ads.

    “DEPRESSED?” THE SIGN ASKS as I wait in a chill wind for the Red Line from Charles/MGH to Harvard. Standing on the platform, I stare at the photo of a young woman, head bowed, chin tucked into her knees, a figure of utter despair. “Do you feel like you lost motivation?” Well, come to think of it, I do. “Have you been feeling worthless or down on yourself?” Yeah . . . “Have you noticed changes in your sleeping or eating pattern? Are you 18 or older?” Yes and yes. And then, the good news: “You may be eligible to participate at no cost in a Massachusetts General Hospital research study evaluating antidepressant medications.” Good news indeed. Just call “1-877-55-BLUES.”

    And so each day begins with what I call “The Red Line Blues,” a gantlet of subway advertising signage designed to sink even the most buoyant of spirits and pluck the most private of places. Riders on other lines also feel my pain. These days, the price of public transportation is not the CharlieCard, but the toll on my psyche: that endless barrage of probing questions designed to rattle confidence, burrow into my privacy, and question my virility.

    “Do you have problems with ejaculation (release of semen)?” asks one sign posted in a speeding car. Details of the criteria necessary to participate in this study are even more intimate (such as “It takes you a longer time to ejaculate” and “You experience decreased force of ejaculation”) — all of which puts the PUBLIC in public transportation.


    “What business is it of yours?” I mutter. But as I read on, I see it is their business. And no, I do not wish to enroll in the study. In fact, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not be asked at 8 each morning to ponder my sperm count. And judging from the pained look of the young lady grasping the strap in front of the sign, she, too, is a bit put off by the proximity of such questions.

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    No wonder everyone is texting on cellphones, lost in ear buds, or glued to Kindles. One stray glance and you could be assaulted with a fusillade of invasive questions. Directly overhead, a banner declares: “Bad Memories of Childhood,” as if everyone on the train now knows that I who sit below it was traumatized as a kid. Fortunately, I don’t qualify for the study. They are looking only for “Healthy unmedicated right-handed individuals ages 18-19.” (Of these, I am at least right-handed.) And may I add, “Thank God!” — the study’s follow-ups last four years. (I wonder how many takers there are — $100 a year ain’t much to marinate for four years in memories of bullies.)

    Not even my son is safe. “Is your child overweight?” asks another sign. “So what?” I think, spoiling for a fight with the author. So researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital would like to get their hands on my son — forget it. The invitation notes “Benefits Include: Individual sessions with a Dietitian” and “Daily text messages.” Benefits? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that my 22-year-old son would not welcome daily text messages reminding him he’s eating too much. Still, at the end of the study, you get an American Express gift card worth $120. (You can buy a lot of pork rinds for $120.)

    Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-research. I just don’t like my commute to be a constant reminder of all that can go wrong in life. It hardly brightens my mornings (or the end of the workday) to be asked “Have you experienced a single, overwhelming traumatic event?” (Answer: Yes, the subway ride.) Or, “Feeling like your ears are playing tricks on you? Feeling suspicious or uneasy with other people?” (Is everyone looking at me?) And how about this dandy: “Do you hate how you look? . . . Are your concerns taking over your life?” (They are now.) And finally, “Do you worry a lot?” Fifteen minutes on the Red Line is enough to drive anyone to depression, sterility, and paranoia.

    It’s almost enough to make me want to drive to work. 



    $4.5 million

    Annual revenue that the MBTA earns from subway advertising.

    Ted Gup is an Emerson College journalism professor on a year’s leave as a fellow at Harvard. Send comments to