New PhRMA Campaign ‘Goes Boldly’ But Treads Unevenly

Susan S. McDonald, Ph.D.

The shoemaker’s children

Though much faulted in the press for spending more on marketing than basic science, the pharmaceutical industry has been remarkably diffident about making a strong case for itself with the American public.  Over two decades ago, I gave a talk to PhRMA in which I noted that the (then) demonized chemical industry had been far more ambitious in managing its image by reminding people that they were “living better through chemistry.”  Ironically, that famous tagline now sees more use as a dig at the pharmaceutical industry than a plug for the chemical industry, but the moral of the tale remains unchanged.  Decades of opportunity were missed because the attention of the drug manufacturers was entirely elsewhere (on regulators and legislators) and everyone assumed that consumers and patients felt nothing but gratitude to the industry which brought new drug therapies to market.  But that simply wasn’t true ― even back in the days when the cost of prescription drugs accounted for less than 10 cents out of every US healthcare dollar, and price gouging had yet to become the flash point it is today.  As it happens, though, consumers are fundamentally mistrustful of drugs – especially chronic therapy – and even people who pay relatively little for prescription medication often regard it as a form of bondage.  They may be persuaded that treatment is medically necessary but they often resent the need more than they revere the solution.  And many consumers are convinced that the industry is inventing diseases faster than it’s curing them.  If someone doesn’t know much about drug science and drug oversight, that’s an easy assumption to make.

What the public doesn’t understand – and what ‘GOBOLDLY’ doesn’t, or can’t, explain in a 60-second spot

Today, the need for image remediation is vast and pressing, and the industry has no reservoir of good will on which to draw.  Those who’ve been tracking the pharma industry’s reputation know it is at an all-time low.  Exponential price hikes on old drugs are no small part of it, but there are other powerful forces at work ― too numerous, complex, and politically sensitive to recap here.  Suffice to say, healthcare is a tough neighborhood and it’s very hard to walk the streets safely, even with shrewd PR professionals to escort you.

PhRMA is taking on the problem with its expensive “GOBOLDLY” PR campaign that focuses on the science of drug discovery by America’s biopharmaceutical companies in truly gorgeous ads set to the words of the famous Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle.” (When was the last time an ad agency invoked serious literature?  Talk about bold….)  The campaign creates excitement and urgency by evoking cancer and Alzheimer’s, two of the diseases our culture fears most and which have proven especially intractable.  Strides in those arenas will take us to a very important crossroads for the industry:  the place where commercial opportunity meets industry rehabilitation. 

The problem, though, is that even with some very exciting discoveries, including mechanisms and molecules of great promise, the odds of reaching the clinic are about 100 to 1. This tall stacked deck is a reality that the American public simply does not comprehend, and it’s a reality that the GOBOLDLY spots are failing to convey.  They can’t.  It would spoil the mood.

Ready for prime time, maybe, but not multi-channel

However boldly they may go, our marketing feet are still scantily clad on an uphill hike.  In an era of multi-channel, multi-touch marketing, the GOBOLDLY initiative might have, must have, envisioned that consumers would visit the PhRMA website.  There they will see drug development “news” that is several years old (e.g., 2012 or 2014), giving a visitor to the website reason to wonder whether the industry is making the progress it claims.  If they take the time to visit drug development pages (where the development timeline can be found) they will be informed that fewer than 12% of drugs are ultimately approved and the cost per successful drug exceeds $2 billion, but the question of why and who pays for those losses is never tackled.  Our customers need to be made to understand that it’s not just about profits, it’s also about the commercial risks ― and who shoulders them.

The credibility of companies over an entire industry

Recently, NAXION conducted a national survey of patients being treated with prescription drugs for diabetes, RA, and cancer (n~75 per condition) and confirmed our hypothesis that patients think significantly more highly of the company that supplies their drugs than the broad industry to which it belongs.  As a point of curiosity, it doesn’t seem to matter which disease we are talking about.  Ratings for the company that makes “your” drug therapy are about the same.

There are several explanations for that finding, but the most powerful is our basic propensity to be more generous in assessing specifics and individuals (people, things, situations) than in assessing diffuse abstractions.  People have always liked their own doctors better than doctors generally, and they have always liked individuals better than the social groups they represent. The same can be said for commercial identities as well.  How you experience the value of a product or service (or extend “forgiveness” for cost) is different when you focus on the face of a company up close rather than the herd.  The fact that patients have less latitude to switch drugs than to switch banks or doctors means there are powerful psychological principles of affinity at work.  A handful of specific companies have had a powerful negative effective on the industry’s mean credibility score, but on the positive side of that equation, individual companies have unique opportunities to elevate the esteem of the industry against the white background noise of an industry campaign.  PhRMA should pay close attention to this and all other potential sources of leverage, as it struggles to play catch-up for lost ground and important steps not previously taken.

Author: Susan S. McDonald, Ph.D.

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