When Drug Marketing Gets Personal
GlaxoSmithKline, the British pharmaceutical giant with U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia, just reported that its fourth-quarter profit rose 20 percent to $1.95 billion on net income of $6.32 billion. That's a margin of over 30 percent. This at a time when Americans are being crushed by rising prescription drug prices and are either buying from Canadian Web sites or splitting their meds to stretch their budgets.
You are a GlaxoSmithKline marketing exec. You see polls confirming the worsening reputation of drug companies, as the public ranks you just above tobacco and oil manufacturers. What do you do? Maybe cut some prices? Nope. You turn your entire 8,000-person sales force into "goodwill ambassadors" in a massive, grassroots public relations effort, asking them to speak to Rotarians, Elks, Lions Club members, senior-citizen groups, weekly newspapers, schools, even, says the drug-maker, "if they just start with their family members."
Ma: Geez, I just refilled my asthma medicine, Advair, and the cost went up again. There goes my night at the movies with Olivia; I can't afford both.
GSK Field Rep (and Ma's daughter): Well, Ma, you know it costs a lot of money and many years to develop those drugs for you.
Ma: 'Scuse me?
GSK Field Rep: Yeah, it can cost billions to develop drugs, to make sure they are safe and all, so the company is just trying to recoup its investment.
Ma: Did I just hear you say you'd start paying for my prescriptions every month?
GSK Field Rep: Well, no, I was just saying...
Pa: I see in the Journal that your company made almost two BILLION dollars profit in just three month.
GSK Field Rep: I don't know. If they did, it hasn't shown up in my paycheck. Maybe they got more efficient.
Pa: You know, when most companies get 'more efficient' as you call it; they pass the benefits along to the consumer in the form of lower prices. I can tell you my Avandamet anti-diabetic and Coreg heart disease prescriptions are only going one way--and that's UP.
GSK Field Rep: Tell it to the FDA, Dad, their rules and regulations cost us millions.
Ma: So now it's the government's fault your prices keep going up at the same time you are making billions in profit?
GSK Field Rep: Why are you so bent out of shape about profits? Look at the oil companies.
Pa: You don't work at a gas station; you work at a drug-maker. If you worked for Exxon, we'd be having a similar conversation about the price of gas, dearie.
GSK Field Rep: Why are you getting on MY case? I don't set the prices.
Ma: But you are defending the companies, making all these arguments why it's OK that they make billions while older folks like us are paying through the nose for our medicines.
GSK Field Rep: Jesus, I'm only doing my job. The company asked us to talk to everyone we knew and explain away their huge profits as R&D and regulatory costs. Give me a break!
Pa: Well, how come you haven't mentioned access to state and federal programs that offset drug prices and misconceptions about direct-to-consumer advertising yet?
GSK Field Rep: How'd you know about that?
Pa: Unlike your generation, we still read the newspaper.
GSK Field Rep: So you knew that I'm part of a local PR effort?
Ma: Sure, but you still haven't convinced me that your company has a right to continue raising the prices of your brother's Valtrex herpes medicine or his Lamictal bipolar disorder meds. More potatoes, dear?
GSK Field Rep: Say, where is Bobby anyway?
Pa: We couldn't afford his medicines anymore. We think he's up in his room either profoundly depressed or building a nuclear reactor out of Legos.