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Diane Ramirez

How Big Pharma Is Working to Improve Its Image

by Diane Ramirez | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

June 3, 2016 | No Comments »

Recent publicity around the pharmaceutical industry has been, to put it kindly, pretty awful. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the almost-entertaining spectacle that is former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, often dubbed “the most hated man in America” after Turing raised the price of its Daraprim by 5,000%. And you can’t listen to a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders stump speech without hearing about the greediness of Big Pharma.

When a group is widely seen as Public Enemy #1 (or at least in the Top 5), what can it do to win back the good graces of said Public? In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the answer is yet to be found. Certainly, Big Pharma has made efforts to dam up the flood of negative press it has received around exorbitant price hikes and tax-dodging efforts.

But it has its work cut out for itself, as John Q. Public remains largely wary of Big Pharma’s intentions. A simple Google search or two proves this, as negative stories greatly outnumber positives for the sector. And the industry is working on it: As the BBC detailed from a recent GlobalData study, nine of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies spend more on sales and marketing than they do on research and development.

Here are just a few of the ways that the pharmaceutical industry is fighting back.

Striking an Emotional Chord

This week Pfizer launched an ad campaign that tugs at the heartstrings, describing the innovation, dedication, and time that goes into creating life-saving medications. Interestingly, the campaign’s first feel-good commercial doesn’t even mention a specific drug — it just paints a picture of how much work and diligence it takes multitudes of scientists to make drugs in general. It’s a good tactic: Portraying brilliant individuals with big dreams personifies Big Pharma, making it tougher to villainize the industry. And showing the amount of work it takes years to accomplish offers a different glimpse behind the scenes from that of a fat-cat executive greedily marking up prices.

Spreading Disease Awareness

This technique basically introduces the public to “new” diseases that have little recognition prior to an ad campaign. These include the likes of restless legs syndrome and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which weren’t on the radar until the pharmaceutical launched its respective treatments. Think “ring around the collar” — the problem nobody knew they had until Wisk laundry detergent came to the rescue. Not to say that these diseases aren’t serious, nor to minimize the impact that medications can have to improve one’s quality of life. However, these are the advertisements that ask you “have you ever …” or “do you suffer from the following …” The message is often vague enough, and worrying enough, to indeed make you want to “see your doctor.”

Recent unbranded advertising that falls into this category includes campaigns to promote awareness of binge eating disorder and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Last year Merck launched a campaign describing new developments in the treatment of insomnia, shortly after its sleep aid Belsomra was approved. This type of advertising is pitch-perfect in getting new customers interested in promising new products.

Being Socially Responsible

Another powerful way to challenge the negative image Big Pharma carries is to surprise the public with good deeds, showing the industry to be a conscientious member of society. For example, Big Pharma is increasingly improving access to its medicines, working with NGOs and tailoring drug prices to ensure that treatments are available in poor and developing nations. Merck, AstraZeneca, and Novo Nordisk are examples of firms that have introduced new initiatives to bring their products to areas that need them but can’t afford them.

Earlier this month Pfizer made the news when it banned the use of its drugs for executions. Following in the footsteps of others, the pharmaceutical giant closed the final open-market source of these drugs. It stated that its products are meant to enhance and save lives, not for capital punishment. The strategy, which the company purports to be morally driven and not profit-minded, again underlines the caring stance that pharmaceuticals want to exhibit.

Venturing beyond Television

While TV ads make up (by far) the bulk of pharma marketing, the industry is branching out into nontraditional forms of advertising. For example, to reach children and adolescents, drug companies have introduced lesson plans for health classes (Pfizer), superhero comic books (Shire, Horizon Pharma), and even smartphone apps (Sanofi). It is hoped that these efforts to appeal to youngsters will boost their brands, while also educating families on their options.

Hiring a Celebrity

The tried-and-true method of hiring pop culture heroes is still a viable option. Among the celebrities that have recently signed on to endorse pharmaceuticals are Sally Field, Arnold Palmer, NBA champ Chris Bosh, and comedian Kevin Nealon. The jury is out on whether or not consumers (and their prescribing physicians) are influenced to actually use celebrity-endorsed treatments, but seeing an admired personality in an ad does tend to make viewers stop and take notice.

In Conclusion

Pharmaceutical companies are climbing an uphill battle. They have received a lot of bad press and are living under the scrutiny of the public eye and government officials. Whether impressive advertising is going to be enough to turn the tides of public opinion remains to be seen.

Diane Ramirez has been a member of the D&B editorial department for more than a decade. She currently covers the health care and insurance industries for Hoover’s.


Image courtesy of Pfizer.

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