Big Pharma trying to rehab image with ennobling ad campaign

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They bombard you day after day—ads for drugs to treat almost every malady from itchy scalp to painful feet.

You can change the TV channel or turn the magazine page, but you really can’t escape them. There's the overweight guy trying to manage his diabetes or the woman embarrassed to go to the gym because of red, scaly patches on her shoulders.

It’s a $5 billion a year industry, with just about every major pharmaceutical company spending big bucks to get its latest commercial on prime-time television or in the newest issue of Good Housekeeping or Golf magazine.

Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. was the fourth-largest spender in 2015, shelling out $332 million, according to Nielsen data. Most of that money, $220 million, went for a single product—erectile dysfunction drug Cialis, with the famous his-and-her outdoor bathtubs—making it the single-largest advertised drug that year.

But the winds are changing, and these days drug makers are sensitive about their public image.

Earlier this month, just days before he was sworn in as president, Donald Trump took aim at Big Pharma and high drug prices, saying the industry is “getting away with murder.”

“Pharma has a lot of lobbies, a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power,” Trump said.

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report that said prescription drug spending in the U.S. is rising and is projected to continue faster than overall health spending in coming years.

In 2015, prescription drug spending in the U.S. was estimated at $457 billion, or about 16.7 percent of overall personal health care services, the report said. That was up 12.6 percent from a year earlier.

Drug makers are still trying to distance themselves from the poster children of abusive pricing over the past two years. At the top of the list is Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli, the grinning, hoodie-wearing former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who unapologetically raised the price of a lifesaving drug, Daraprim, by 5,000 percent overnight in 2015.

Not far behind are Valeant Pharamaceuticals, which raised the price of two heart drugs by 500 percent and 200 percent, and Questcor Pharmaceuticals, which raised the price of a multiple sclerosis drug from $1,235 a vial to more than $29,000.

How is the drug industry responding? Lots of ways.

On Monday, the industry’s trade association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, unveiled a campaign trying to rescue its image. The campaign, called “Go Boldly,” hits the message that the industry develops life-saving medicines, and that they help keep medical costs down, because new medicines often reduce hospital stays and chronic illnesses.

The campaign consists of several TV commercials and a public relations campaign to cast drug makers as bold risk-takers who try to improve public health, not profiteer from it.

And speaking of drug ads, in April the drug advertising industry will hold its annual conference in Boston, marking the 20th anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to allow TV ads.

According to the program, the conference is filled with sessions that will help a drug advertiser deal with “tough challenges for engaging its target audience,” the “upheaval in Washington” and “share what concerns still need to be addressed.”

Of course, there will also be networking cocktail parties and the highlight of the event: the Advertising Awards Ceremony.

This is where drug companies and their ad agencies compete in such categories as Best New Brand/Indication Television Campaign, Best Celebrity Campaign, Best Multicultural Campaign and Best Disease Education Campaign.

Interested in going and hearing the latest marketing advice? Get ready to pull out your credit card. Tickets for the awards banquet are $495. Admission to the entire conference can run as high as $2,995.

Who says the drug industry doesn’t know how to price a product?

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