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Outrage of the Month: Big Pharma’s Self-Promoting Media Campaign

Health Letter, March 2017

By Michael Carome, M.D.


If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

Outrage of the Month: Big Pharma's Self-Promoting Media Campaign
Image: Timothy OLeary/Shutterstock.com

For many years, pharmaceutical companies have spent billions of dollars annually to advertise the benefits of specific drugs. But now, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) — the leading industry trade group representing brand-name drug companies — has launched a multi-million dollar, multi-year advertising and public relations campaign to promote the overall benefits of the pharmaceutical industry itself.

The advertising component of this direct-to-consumer campaign, called “GoBoldly,” features national TV, print, digital and radio ads that are intended to highlight recent advances in medicines. PhRMA executives told reporters the campaign would last at least four to five years and cost “high tens of millions of dollars every year.”

One 90-second TV commercial contains uplifting background music and a mix of captivating images of pharmaceutical researchers in laboratories and patients in hospitals, while scrolling screen text states, “When an indomitable will to cure pushes researchers to find the unfindable and cure the incurable, today’s breakthroughs become tomorrow’s medicines for all of us.”

PhRMA’s slick, manipulative advertising campaign represents a desperate but heavily-funded attempt to repair the industry’s well-deserved dismal reputation, given its increasingly outrageous price gouging (not to mention its history of well-documented fraud and other illegal conduct spanning the last 25 years).

Public anger over unaffordable drug prices has reached a crescendo following a steady stream of news reports revealing exorbitant monopoly pricing for many new brand-name drugs, as well as overnight price hikes for many older medications. A 2016 survey found that 87 percent of U.S. adults are concerned about other people not being able to afford prescription drugs (55 percent are very concerned); 90 percent of seniors shared this concern. Overall, 85 percent of Americans believe that the prices of prescription drugs are too high, and 77 percent think that drug companies are unfairly profiting off of lifesaving drugs. A recent Gallup poll found that no private industry is held in lower esteem by Americans than the pharmaceutical industry.

Many members of Congress, realizing that they can no longer ignore the public outcry over increasingly unaffordable prescription drugs, have begun to take action. For example, some members have introduced legislation that would begin to rein in drug prices (see here and here), while others have initiated investigations into alleged price fixing by some drug companies. And even President Trump asserted shortly before taking office that drug companies are “getting away with murder.”

PhRMA’s advertising blitz reflects the pharmaceutical industry’s fears that its unfettered ability to charge whatever the market will bear may finally be coming to an end. Don’t be deceived by ads that seek to portray the industry as a knight in shining armor for patients. Call and write to your members of Congress and urge them to stand up for patients, not greedy corporations, by supporting legislation to make medications affordable for all Americans.