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A positive image never goes out of style
January 2011
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author
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Plagued by the economic downturn, generic competition, sluggish innovation and concerns over drug safety and efficacy, the pharma and biotech industries in recent years have undergone serious makeovers in the form of cost-cutting, layoffs, reorganization, mergers and acquisitions—but are these industries putting their best faces forward?

While pharma and biotech companies have been going through various processes of reinvention in the past three years or so, some basic marketing and public perception campaigns have fallen by the wayside. Like a busy mom on the go, they are so preoccupied with keeping investors happy and staying afloat in turbulent times that they have been caught at the grocery store wearing pajama pants. In other words, matters such as late-stage clinical trial failures are more of a priority than how these companies are viewed by the general public. That will happen when you go into what I like to call "survival mode."

Following these industries as closely as we do, I'm always aware of screaming headlines about civil lawsuits over drug side effects, sudden resignations of key company officials or government investigations into alleged illegal practices. And frankly, I get a lot of, "how can you stand writing about such a corrupt industry?" from friends and family.

But it wasn't until I took a few hours off from work to catch a movie over New Year's weekend that I began to seriously contemplate the image crisis facing Big Pharma.

The movie was "Little Fockers," the third installment in the "Meet the Fockers" comedy franchise starring actors Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro. It's not a serious or thought-provoking film by any means—truth be told, I purposely chose it to give myself about 90 minutes to "veg out." But as Stiller's character, Greg, is a nurse manager at a prominent Chicago hospital and visited by a pharma sales rep promoting a new drug, I found myself sitting up and paying attention instead of mindlessly munching popcorn (don't you hate when that happens?).

The sales rep, "Andi with an 'I'," portrayed by actress Jessica Alba, works for a fictional pharma and quite literally explodes into Greg's life to ask if he will consider promoting Sustengo, an impotence drug that is safe for heart disease patients. Andi is the very definition of a pharma rep stereotype: She's a perky former cheerleader dressed in the latest designer fashions who tools around town in a candy apple-red convertible with a license plate that reads, "PHARMAGRRL." The character is actually a former nurse—and by her own admittance, a great one—who turns to pharmaceutical sales to "earn more dough."

She also pops her own samples like candy and posts "remix" videos of Greg's presentation at a medical conference on YouTube. Ah, today's generation …

Pretty far out there, huh? Well, I thought so too, until I started Googling public reaction to this character and actually found a Wikipedia page devoted to a serious discussion about Sustengo.

"Sustengo (generic name pendenadil doltrate) is a fictional drug featured in the 2010 film Little Fockers. The drug is marketed by the fictional Boston Pharmaceuticals. In the film, the drug is advertised as safe and effective for 'heart patients' as it not only increases penile blood flow, but also acts as a beta-blocker to keep the heart rate down during intercourse. Theoretically, this would seem to be beneficial as beta-adrenergic blockade would not drastically reduce penile blood flow. However, a theoretical concern with this concomitant effect is therapeutic duplication of beta-blockers (most MI patients will have been prescribed a beta-blocker after experiencing a myocardial infarction). In addition, the selectivity of the beta-blockade is not mentioned; non-selective beta blockade could trigger respiratory distress in certain susceptible patients. Furthermore, 'heart patient' encompasses a number of other potential cardiac disease states for which Sustengo's beta-blockade effects would potentially be unsuitable or dangerous."

All this for a product created not by an actual drugmaker, but by Hollywood. Wow. And with pop culture dominating media coverage—even CNN's top stories are mostly related to the entertainment biz—you have to wonder how this latest pharma stereotype will be digested by moviegoers who generally aren't in a position to make informed decisions about the state of the pharma industry.

For the next few days, mainstream media headlines jumped out at me, decrying the latest "bad news" for the industry: "Inspire Pharma shares dive on failed study," "AstraZeneca feels Big Pharma's pain," "Academic docs kept speaking on Big Pharma's dime, despite bans," "15 dirty Big Pharma tricks that rip you off and risk your health," to mention a few. Even "good" news was cast in a negative light: We can't have pharma companies turning a profit, can we? They can continue to make important therapies without that, right?

I'm not suggesting that Big Pharma isn't guilty of a few sins. After all, trial data doesn't lie. But what is the industry doing to protect and improve its reputation as an entity responsible for healing the sick and improving the lives of patients? In the next decade, the pharma and biotech industries need to boost consumer faith and trust if they wish to continue to innovate and successfully serve patients in need.

Here's hoping that in 2011 and beyond, these industries invest in an image makeover, so they aren't a running punchline in a 'B' movie. Perhaps by this time next year, we won't be contemplating which companies are on the "worst-dressed" list, but instead, which companies "wore it best." 

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