Thursday, March 25, 2010

Are Pharma Marketers Drug Pushers?

"Critics may not like branded drugs pushed [my emphasis] directly to consumers but it is clear that it brings people in the doctor's door," wrote Bob Ehrlich, Chairman of DTC Perspectives (see "DTC Supported By Ad Critic"). Note to Bob: Please attach your name to your blog posts. I know this was written by you, but new visitors might not realize that these are your opinions. Also, since I am a bit dyslexic, it will help me remember how to spell your last name!

I never expected to see "branded drugs" and "pushed" used in the same sentence by a non-critic like Ehrlich. I suggest that he edit that sentence -- at least put "pushed" in quotes. It elicits an image in the minds of readers that I don't think Ehrlich would approve of.

Ehrlich was speaking about direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising critics, who have been known to use the word "push" when describing DTC ads as well as how drugs are marketed to physicians. See, for example, the book "Confessions of an RX Drug Pusher" by Gwen Olsen who "spent more than a decade as a sales rep in the pharmaceutical industry working for health care giants such as Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Abbott Laboratories."

I searched Google for images to use in this blog post using the search term "drug pusher" and found three versions of Olsen's book cover art on the first page of results!

If it wasn't for Bob's post and use of the word "push," I never would have come across Olsen's book. Now I simply must read it!

Is it fair to call Rx drug marketers "pushers?" It all depends on how you define "pusher." Of course, the term is almost always used in relation to the sale of illegal drugs, not Rx medications. But since Bob has used it to describe promotion of legal drugs, we'll leave legal vs. illegal out of the equation.

I've always envisioned "pushers" as unscrupulous drug dealers who attempt to "hook" school kids on drugs by first offering them "free" samples. "Try it Johnnie! If you like it, I can get you more and give you a good deal." Hmmm... this is exactly what "free" samples given to docs by drug sales reps are designed to do. It's a form of "pushing" using the physician as the middleman -- the ultimate drug user being the patient. Of course, for this whole process to work, you need to get the patient into the doctor's office, which is the role of DTC advertising.

In the world of illegal drug sales, the pusher has direct contact with the user and seeks them where they hang out; eg, school yards. In the world of Rx drug "pushing," the "users" (ie, consumers) are found where THEY hang out: the living room!

Jeez! When you think of DTC advertising that way, it feels way creepy! Thanks Bob for planting that image in my brain!


  1. I'm guessing that if he had been reading up on social media or even trying to get a Droid to work with corporate exchange mail, he was thinking of the social media or IT meaning of push. You "push" mail to a phone, and old-style advertising is said to "push" messages on consumers rather than engaging them. I have to admit, "damn the pusher man" wasn't first on my mind. Still, maybe a poor choice of words.

  2. Anonymous9:43 AM

    Illegal drugs benefit from wom in a way us marketers could only dream of. The idea of free samples to get people hooked is bs whether we are talking about illegal drugs or rx. Ultimately the consumer is aware of the risks and makes a choice. These days it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or dr/chemist) to go online and learn the harms and effects of any drug, legal distinctions aside.
    If we legalized illicit drugs and liberalized pharma laws we would see a renaissance in chemistry - harm reduced non addictive recreational chemicals. All without gang violence and turf wars and black markets. That would be a beautiful thing and free resources to focus on the real culprit behind illegal drug use - mental health.
    All that aside, to equate education of life saving drugs with wom driving demand in recreational drugs is not only false, but reckless at best.

  3. Sometimes marketers use words that are really marketer-centric and not consumer-centric. Take "target", for example. It may be a good way to describe what the marketer is attempting to do in a report to management, but who wants to be referred to as a "target"? Not me. In social media, marketers are attempting to "engage" with consumers directly. To do that, they cannot think of them as "targets" and as "pushing" their messages out. These terms must be expunged from the marketers vocabulary if they ever hope to have genuine discussions with consumers.

  4. Mike,

    Also, if Bob meant "push" as you say he did, he should have said "branded drug messages pushed" or something like that.

  5. Anonymous10:01 AM

    There is no way this comparison holds:

    1. Traditional "drug pushers" sell drugs with known side effect profiles, while pharmaceutical companies corrupt medical studies on both efficacy and side effects and lie about the results; hire KOLs to promote those lies; corrupt CMEs to promote those lies etc.

    2. Both are convicted felons and there are recidivists on both sides.

    3. Heroin, cocaine and marijuana kill far fewer users per year (5-10 thousand) than pharmaceutical products (Vioxx alone 40-80 thousand.) If you include alcoholic beverages the death rates are of the same magnitude but pharma still kills more.

    4. Both sell addictive products; in fact some overlap (oxycontin, valium etc)

    5.Pharma spends orders of magnitude more on its promotional activities giving away far more "samples."

    6. Pharma has much greater political influence; when they give money to politicians, researchers and hire FDA employees it is legal.

    7. Lawyers who represent traditional organized crime are viewed sceptically; pharma lawyers are well respected members of gigantic firms.

  6. I was not seriously comparing Rx marketing to illegal drug pushing. I was thinking more how this comment implanted an image in MY brain that was unsettling and therefore criticizing Ehrlich for improper use of words. It is interesting, however, to see people's reactions.

  7. Anonymous11:34 AM

    oh jeez... for all intensive purposes drugs are drugs are just chemicals that change the way your brain and/or body functions. So we should treat all drugs, recreational or otherwise, the same way. But that is where the similarities end because one is regulated and under risk of tort while the other is a black market of who knows what adulterated with not even god knows what.

    1. Traditional "drug pushers" sell drugs with known side effects
    Wrong. Because the market is underground and unregulated you have no idea what exactly you are getting and what the dosage is.
    2. Both are convicted felons
    This makes no sense. I've never heard of a pharma ceo gunning down a rival exec or sales force.
    3. Heroin, cocaine and marijuana kill far fewer users per year (5- 10 thousand) than pharmaceutical products
    True, but these are recreational chems people choose to ingest. How many lives do they save or extend?
    4. Both sell addictive products
    True, but regulated pharma has an incentive to curb abuse potential. Look at the rise of pro drugs.
    5.Pharma spends orders of magnitude more
    You can't prove this - there are no published numbers for cartels and bribes and gun purchases
    6. Pharma has much greater political influence
    True, only because they are a regulated respectable business and deserve a voice in the political process. But let's not forget how much the drug trade fuels political instability in mexico, latin america, afghanistan, and even americn border towns. You could argue that is a big geopolitical influence.

    There is little similarity between rx and "drugs" only because one group is forced to resort to criminal behavior because of bad public policy. And until that policy changes, illegal drugs will be more dangerous simply because they are illegal. One thing is certain, all of us rational humans are seeing through the hypocrisy of the "drugs are bad mmmkay so take your xanax and relax" mentality.

  8. Anonymous11:41 AM

    Pharma could learn a thing or two from the drug (black)market. You'll never meet a pharma user who is as much of a brand evangelist as the pothead who swears "this stuff opens your mind, maaan" or the cokehead who regales with tales of staying "up till 3 AM to work on the pitchbook and then went clubbing and brought home 2 [blowhead/skibum] chicks".
    That is WOM at its best.

  9. RICO anyone?

    Jury: Pfizer must pay $47 million
    By Christine McConville | Thursday, March 25, 2010 |

    A Boston jury has just levied a $47 million penalty against Pfizer Inc., the world’s largest drug maker.

    The jury ruled that Pfizer violated anti-racketeering laws by committing fraud in promoting its epilepsy drug Neurontin off-label for bipolar disorder, migraines and neuropathic pain.

    Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals had accused Pfizer of illegally promoting the drug, Boston attorney Thomas Greene said today.

    The jury verdict may be the first RICO verdict against a pharmaceutical company, he added.

    Article URL:

  10. "you have no idea what exactly you are getting and what the dosage is."

    true for pharma:

    "Thirteen of the 20 best-selling drugs in the United States come from plants on this island. n investigation by The Associated Press has found dozens of examples over four years of lapses in quality control in the Puerto Rican pharmaceutical industry, which churns out $35 billion of drugs each year, most of it for sale as part of the $300 billion market in the U.S."

    "An AP review of 100 pages of Food and Drug Administration reports shows even modern drug plants here under the watch of U.S. regulators have failed to keep laboratories sterile and have exported tainted pills."
    "The FDA issued a warning letter to Wyeth in May 2006, after consumers reported finding machinery pins inside bottles of Effexor, a leading depression treatment, and the heartburn drug Protonix. The letter expressed concern that the plant was not "able to detect that the affected equipment was missing some of its parts."

    "One of those four, GlaxoSmithKline PLC, produced tablets of the popular antidepressant Paxil CR that split apart, potentially causing patients to take incorrect dosages.

    Wrong doses in some pills
    When the company would not recall all the affected pills, U.S. marshals raided the plant in March 2005 in the largest drug seizure in FDA history and also collected tablets of the diabetes treatment Avandamet after some were found not to have accurate doses of the active ingredient"

  11. sorry error on that 47 million number

    The jury found today that Pfizer violated both the federal civil-racketeering law and California’s Unfair Competition Law. Under the racketeering law, the amount of actual damages found by the jury, $47.36 million, will be tripled.

  12. Recently an interesting article was published on the impact of DTC (and also physician oriented marketing) on sales. Based on data analysis, the authors of the article come to the conclusion that the sharp rise in DTC expenditures did not lead to a jump in drug expenditures thanks to the competitive dynamics between the different brands. Check out my blog for more info:

  13. Anonymous7:51 AM

    why the pharmaceutical ceos,the richest corporations and law makers want to keep illicit drug trade going!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...