Did Lilly get preferential treatment on a disputable billboard ad?

November 4, 2010
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A San Francisco health care advocacy group picked a tough town when it tried to buy billboard ads in Indianapolis calling on Eli Lilly and Co. to stop manufacturing a hormone widely used to make dairy cows give more milk.

The billboard companies, including Lamar Outdoor Advertising and CBS, rebuffed Breast Cancer Action because, they told The Indianapolis Star, the group couldn’t back its claim that the hormone causes cancer in humans who drink the milk.

Lilly’s Elanco division bought the recombinant bovine growth hormone business from Monsanto two years ago. The drug, called Posilac, was OK’d by the FDA in 1993.

Lilly told IBJ reporter Scott Olson that Breast Cancer Action refused an invitation to “go over the science,” and the group retorted Lilly wouldn’t “open the books” on the hormone.

Actually, the group could have taken its claim a step further and alleged Lilly makes a buck selling a cancer-causing hormone and now is scrambling to make another buck by looking for a drug to cure the disease.

Nevertheless, the ads, which would have said, “Eli Lilly is making us sick. Tell them to stop,” are going nowhere for now.

On the one hand, the billboard companies should be admired for turning away ads they felt were misleading. Newspapers, which arguably have a greater obligation than advertising firms to offer a forum for protest, routinely turn away ads they feel are inaccurate.

But did Lilly’s stature in Indianapolis play a role in the decision? Would the billboard companies have spiked a controversial ad had the target been any company but Lilly? Imagine a group trying to buy space demanding Citizens Gas stop gouging ratepayers or WellPoint stop cheating policyholders.

Outside Indiana, Lilly is perceived as just another profit-hungry, ethically challenged drug company.

Not here. Lilly is so revered as an employer, corporate citizen and all-around sugar daddy that it isn’t uncommon to come across would-be sources for news stories who won’t comment for fear of offending the company—usually out of respect but also sometimes over concerns of reprisal.

That’s a huge stockpile of good will. The next time you read a story about Lilly, note that about the only people casting a skeptical eye will be stock analysts or activist groups like Breast Cancer Action. And they’re virtually always outside Indiana.

It’s impossible to know how much negative news about Lilly never hits local websites due to its prominence. But one has to wonder.

What are your thoughts?

  • Right thing
    Lilly has done a lot for this city and these companies made the right choice. Plus these billboard companies aren't in the medical business they don't know what these drugs do and it's not there job to find out. You don't bite the hand that feeds your city.
  • Responsible
    Imagine a billboard company putting up a board that claims Coca Cola causes diabetes. Can one connect the dots that too many calories can lead to obesity. And obesity can predispose individuals to diabetes. But is that link enough to justify that claim?

    Simply because some organization claims that a Lilly product causes cancer doesn't necessarily make it so. Their evidence is at best, shaky. And if I'm a billboard company, I wouldn't want to risk being drawn into slander allegations simply to fill an available board. Whether the claim is against Lilly or any other organization, there needs to be some reasonable expectation of honesty. The Posilac/cancer connections don't pass that test.
  • Unfortunate
    "Actually, the group could have taken its claim a step further and alleged Lilly makes a buck selling a cancer-causing hormone and now is scrambling to make another buck by looking for a drug to cure the disease." On top of the ââ?¬Å?so what if they didââ?¬Â? conclusion that most readers likely will reach upon reading this article, baseless statements like these are a poor form of speculative journalism. It seems fairly clear that you, also, did not take Lilly up on its ââ?¬Å?invitation to ââ?¬Ë?go over the science,ââ?¬â?¢Ã¢â?¬Â? but, instead, simply overinflated yet another faux controversy to see if itââ?¬â?¢ll float.
  • Lilly
    Older citizens say we're entitled to the drugs for their health. Critically ill patients say they have to have them to live. But others, yet, want to critize the drug companies for potential damage that MAY occur. How does a company like Lilly win in today's litigeous society? Greedy lawyers and people looking for their chance to get a big settlement whether deserved or not.

    All of this runs up the costs of those drugs so many people want and provides more targets for do-gooders to take shots at. Keep it up. Prices for health insurance next year will increase by a minimum of 30% thanks to the Obama Health Fiasco. Might as well add more.
  • Outdoor content is responsible
    As a long-term former employee of 2 of the companies mentioned, I can share the industries prudence in reviewing ad copy for accuracy. These "advocacy groups" want an in your face ad, and are often loose with the facts. Given the downturn in the ad market, I am confident that the ads would have run if the claims could have been substantiated. This story is about a responsible advertising medium rejecting irresponsible copy. Eli Lilly being the target of the desired ads was irrelevant.
  • Well, Duh
    Indiana is a fascist state where Liberty is subverted for economic gain. As we've seen repeatedly with the Colts and the Pacers, the Liberal Republicans love using state power for corporate gain, because, being Communists, Republicans prefer economic security to freedom.

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  1. By Mr. Lee's own admission, he basically ran pro-bono ads on the billboard. Paying advertisers didn't want ads on a controversial, ugly billboard that turned off customers. At least one of Mr. Lee's free advertisers dropped out early because they found that Mr. Lee's advertising was having negative impact. So Mr. Lee is disingenous to say the city now owes him for lost revenue. Mr. Lee quickly realized his monstrosity had a dim future and is trying to get the city to bail him out. And that's why the billboard came down so quickly.

  2. Merchants Square is back. The small strip center to the south of 116th is 100% leased, McAlister’s is doing well in the outlot building. The former O’Charleys is leased but is going through permitting with the State and the town of Carmel. Mac Grill is closing all of their Indy locations (not just Merchants) and this will allow for a new restaurant concept to backfill both of their locations. As for the north side of 116th a new dinner movie theater and brewery is under construction to fill most of the vacancy left by Hobby Lobby and Old Navy.

  3. Yes it does have an ethics commission which enforce the law which prohibits 12 specific items. google it

  4. Thanks for reading and replying. If you want to see the differentiation for research, speaking and consulting, check out the spreadsheet I linked to at the bottom of the post; it is broken out exactly that way. I can only include so much detail in a blog post before it becomes something other than a blog post.

  5. 1. There is no allegation of corruption, Marty, to imply otherwise if false. 2. Is the "State Rule" a law? I suspect not. 3. Is Mr. Woodruff obligated via an employment agreement (contractual obligation) to not work with the engineering firm? 4. In many states a right to earn a living will trump non-competes and other contractual obligations, does Mr. Woodruff's personal right to earn a living trump any contractual obligations that might or might not be out there. 5. Lawyers in state government routinely go work for law firms they were formally working with in their regulatory actions. You can see a steady stream to firms like B&D from state government. It would be interesting for IBJ to do a review of current lawyers and find out how their past decisions affected the law firms clients. Since there is a buffer between regulated company and the regulator working for a law firm technically is not in violation of ethics but you have to wonder if decisions were made in favor of certain firms and quid pro quo jobs resulted. Start with the DOI in this review. Very interesting.