Nicholas Genes, a physician who publishes Blogborygmi, a blog he characterizes as a "digest of developments in the life of an emergency medicine resident" posted an April Fool's joke on his blog, which depicted an all-too believable scenario of GSK influence over physician bloggers:
"Over the past few weeks I've been negotiating with a team at GlaxoSmithKline. They want to 'get into this blog business,' and we're looking for ways expand the readership of mdical [sic] blogs. I saw an opportunity." [See "Grand Rounds, brought to you by GlaxoSmithKline."]I must admit I fell for it!
I believed the premise that GSK was interested in blogging because a GSK executive responsible for grassroots campaigns expressed an interest in blogs. However, I didn't envision that the best way for GSK or any pharma company to get involved with blogs was by promoting physician bloggers and influencing what they say. I suggested instead that GSK start its own corporate blog to improve the company's public image (see, for example, "Sales Reps Make Poor Spokespeople" and "GSK Strikes Back with a Grassroots Campaign").
Still, pharma companies are being pushed to get into blogging not for PR purposes but to achieve marketing goals (see "Buzz 'n Blogs -- Stealth Marketing"). Dr. Genes' farce is a strategy that could easily be adopted by a pharmaceutical company.
Genes farce depicted GSK as a sponsor of "Grand Rounds," a weekly compendium of the "best in medical blogging" hosted by different physicians on their blogs. According to Genes' farcical description of how this might work is as follows:
"[Grand Rounds] has exemplified two principles: 1) there's no better way to learn about healthcare than from those in the field and 2) self-promotion is a powerful motivator.I re-iterate that this is a fantasy -- as of now. I haven't seen any links on GSK's home page and I haven't seen Levitra ads in the urology Grand Rounds posting. But I have seen some blog "theme" articles published by Grand Rounds participants.
"Glaxo recognizes this, and they want to capitalize. It's the high quality of written submissions, the creative hosting efforts, and brazen opportunism that have make Grand Rounds great -- and led us to this unique new collaboration.
"So, starting this week [April 1, 2006] , the GlaxoSmithKline homepage will run a link to Grand Rounds every Tuesday morning! Also, Glaxo drug reps will start handing out cards with the URL of the Grand Rounds archive to doctors and students they identify as "computer-oriented" or "loners."
"Now, in return for this torrent of traffic, Glaxo has asked for something in return. They would like each host to run a link to GSK.com and, as appropriate, to individual product sites. The hosts can choose to whether to place this link in the body of the Grand Rounds post, or high up in their blog's sidebar. Hosts can also choose the color of the text.
"This ties in closely with something else: Glaxo will be encouraging more "theme" editions. Now, some of the best Grand Rounds have featured themes. These new themes will revolve around some of the drugs Glaxo makes.
"For instance, the upcoming April Fourth edition will be hosted by a urologist, and so will naturally feature submissions on erectile dysfunction. Specifically, posts about Levitra will be prominently displayed up at the top of Grand Rounds. "
On April 21, for example, the (non-farcical) post "An interesting DTC approach" was made to Health Business Blog (a Grand Rounds participant) by David Williams who happens to be a "co-founder of MedPharma Partners LLC, strategy consultant to pharma, biotech, device, and technology enabled healthcare services industries."
The approach that Williams found "interesting" was a GSK marketing program for the new Fruit Chill flavor of its OTC Nicorette gum.
The "interesting approach" is based on the use of coupons and a chance to win prizes as a ploy to get consumers to buy Nicorette. While Nicorette is not an Rx product, the use of coupons in Rx marketing has drawn some attention lately by the FDA (see, for example, "FDA, Coupons, and Sleep Aid DTC Ads"). FDA intended to look at whether coupons and rebates that are part of some prescription-drug advertisements might cause consumers to think a drug is safer or more effective than it really is. A few days later, however, the FDA mysteriously "yanked" its notice in the Federal Register (see "FDA Backs Down on Coupon Study").
Genes ends his farce thusly:
"While I suspect this may ruffle some feathers, I want to stress that bloggers can write whatever they want about Levitra -- Grand Rounds is still very much an open forum (though representatives from Glaxo have asked to evaluate each submission before its inclusion in Grand Rounds; the hosts will comply). If you're worried about participating in some kind of viral marketing campaign, remember: Glaxo makes antivirals."I should have been tipped off by the humorous bit at the end. However, Genes does provide a link to the Relenza product Web site. Relenza is GSK's product for the treatment of influenza. I didn't think that was a joke. It is thoroughly conceivable that pharma marketers could negotiate product placement ads on physician blogs. I notice Viagra ads placed in plenty of movies and HBO programs.
The main lesson I learned from all this is -- don't believe everything you read! I should have noted the date of Dr. Genes' post and put two and two together. But I was primed to believe the story. For that, I apologize to GSK, the Grand Rounds physician bloggers, and to the readers of this blog.