Did Lilly get preferential treatment on a disputable billboard ad?

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?

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