Pill Pushers: Pharmaceutical Marketing in an Overmedicated Nation
An Interview with Melody Petersen
Melody Petersen covered the pharmaceutical beat for The New York Times for four years, in 1997, her investigative reporting won a Gerald Loeb Award, one of the highest honors in business journalism. She is the author of Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Stick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs (2008).
Multinational Monitor: There is a long history of pharmaceutical companies hawking remedies to the broad population. What's different about the current era?
Melody Petersen: It's much more aggressive. Many companies have even put their marketers in charge of their laboratories. At Pfizer, there was a program called CRAM, which stood for Central Research Assists Marketing. The name made it clear that the marketers were in charge.
The whole focus of the industry has changed. The drug companies center their efforts on medicines for chronic conditions that affect large portions of the American public--and therefore have vast potential markets--things like heartburn, depression, allergies, blood pressure. Even inside the labs, the scientists are told to focus only on drugs that could become billion-dollar sellers. That's why we have six drugs to lower cholesterol that all work in the same way. And yet millions of very sick patients have no treatments.
MM: What are the key themes of drug company marketing campaigns to consumers?
Petersen: There are two different ways the companies use the ads to get you to go to the doctor. One way is to trade in fear about a disease. These ads have taglines like, "What you don't know could kill you" or the ominous, "All it may take is the formation of one clot." Those are attempts to make you fearful that, if you don't take a pill, you could die.
The second way they use the ads is to show wonderful scenes of people running on the beach, hiking in the woods, dancing at a party. In those ads, they're not really selling medicines, they're selling things like youth and happiness and friends and beauty and sex. This is how marketers sell a whole host of different products. The underlying message is that this medicine will bring you a sort of personal transformation. You'll be envied, you'll be more lovable, if you take the advertised medicine.
MM: Besides overt ads, what do the companies do to market to consumers?
Petersen: The companies do most of their promotion from behind the scenes. If a company needs a group of patients or doctors to stand up and be advocates for its drugs, it may simply create a group that looks like a cancer society or a heart association, but is really nothing more than the creation of a PR firm working for the drug company.
If they want a news story about their medicine, a PR firm calls up reporters and works to get stories placed, often successfully.
When I was at the New York Times, I would get calls from the public relations staff of a drug company offering me what they called "an exclusive" story. They had one of the best doctors in the country ready to talk to me about a new medicine that was going to be on the market. They had patients who wanted to tell me how this drug had changed their lives. They even had a survey that said a large percentage of the American public suffered from this particular disease. It was clear I wouldn't have to do much work for this story. It was all written out in the press release.
I could never get myself to do these stories, but if you read the newspaper, you will find stories like this that have come from a public relations person. They describe what sounds like a wonder drug.
The drug companies are experts at knowing how to put their words in the mouth of someone who appears to be independent, so the public accepts their promotional message as the truth. …