There aren’t many industries, if any, more contested than the pharmaceutical industry. Critics contend that “Big Pharma” is evil in its practices, deferring development of attainable cures for diseases in favor of long-term treatments. They cite collusive behavior conducted by drug companies, nasty side effects caused by most medications, and exorbitant revenue and profit levels as evidence that the industry doesn’t really have patients’ best interests in mind. As a result, an increasing number of consumers are declining to take traditional pharmaceutical drugs in favor of alternative, “natural” remedies (wrongly) perceived to be safer and more harmonious with the human body.
It wasn’t long ago that I myself fell into the realm of Big Pharma cynicism, as it’s admittedly very easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of the industry. I read former physician John Abraham’s “Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine” and nearly immediately became convinced that Big Pharma was out to screw us all. “They don’t see us as patients”, I thought to myself. “They see us as desperate customers with dollar signs flashing above our heads”, I quickly concluded.
That was when I decided to do a little bit of independent, Internet research on the drugs themselves. To my surprise, my perception of the industry quickly changed. While I was impressed by the level of efficacy exhibited by many blockbuster drugs, it was the complex chemical synthesis that took place to actually create these small-molecule medicines that blew me away. Who would have thought that Viagra’s active ingredient, sildenafil, for example, was such a beautiful, intricate molecule that required a dozen or so steps to achieve its synthesis, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in research, development, and clinical testing? It suddenly dawned on me that this was a highly regulated, highly effective industry fueled by some of the world’s brightest chemists, microbiologists, and pathologists. I went from bitter opponent to enthusiastic cheerleader of the industry practically overnight.
Unfortunately, drug-makers in the U.S. tend to leave out robust scientific activity in their direct-to-consumer (DTC) television advertisements. While it’s a practicable and well-accepted marketing practice to promote the benefit instead of the product, there should still be, in my opinion, a brief overview of the science behind the drug. With so many consumers beginning to question the industry’s practices, it would make sense for drug-makers to reinforce their level of scientific expertise, which has captivated the minds of people like me and can do the same for the current skeptics.
This doesn’t have to take more than 15 seconds per commercial. They can and should still place the emphasis on the benefit derived from the drug, as their heartfelt, relatable stories in their commercials already do. But it would be of great gain for drug-makers to at least show the molecule or biologic (a name for a non-molecular medicine) and its mechanism of action in their commercials. It would be even better if they could show some footage of renowned scientists hard at work in their state-of-the-art R&D labs.
Like I said, drug-makers don’t need to overwhelm us consumers with science in their DTC television commercials. A little bit would go a long way. The industry needs to build up its credibility, and it’s not going to do that by highlighting legal disputes going on right now (just head over to FiercePharma.com to get a copy of some of those debacles). The best way for Big Pharma to retain its high level of profitability going forward is to ensure that it doesn’t lose a significant amount of customers to alternative remedies, and the best way to do that is by presenting its biggest asset, scientific expertise, to the general public. After all, an educated consumer makes for the best customer.