I'm Right Again Dot Com

A new commentary every Wednesday   -  May 27, 2015

Marketing All Those Pills on Television

    I spent a couple of hours one night this week, trying to watch an old movie. It was interrupted by numerous commercials. I truly believe they are scheduled to increase in frequency as the plot begins to quicken at the end of the screenplay. I swear that I was subjected to eight commercial broadcasts (we used to call them "spots") in many commercial breaks. This did not include a few promotional announcements for upcoming programs that were scattered throughout the screenplay. I asked myself, could it be true that at times, say after each ten minutes or less of movie, I was subjected to five minutes of commercials?

    There were times when after I had muted the commercials, I actually could not remember right away after the film resumed, what the movie was about—not even the title. I also have begun to realize something had been tickling at my unconscious for some time: nowadays, an enormous number of all commercial announcements on television deal with patented pharmaceuticals, exotic balms for wrinkle eradication and just plain old snake oil. "Interviews" with persons called "doctor," who extemporize about the effectiveness of their miraculous herbal nostrums, have pretty well taken over portions of early morning TV hours, particularly on weekends. Time for all of the above is versus TV advertising purchased by manufacturers of vehicles, companies offering insurance, beer and a variety of other goods and services...such as breakfast cereal and beauty "aids".. and let us not forget attorneys.

    What a great time to shed some light on this situation! Let's not include political advertising in this equation. There was no blizzard of political spots, not even the so-called "dark money" propaganda, in the several hours I spent putting in some effort in trying to determine if Big Pharma leads the pack for television advertising.

    Advertising pays. In 2011, Boehringer Ingelheim spent $464-million promoting its blood-thinner, Pradaxa. In 2012, its sales of the drug surpassed $1-billion. Yes, in a 12-month interval.

    In 2014, Novartus had close to $58-billion in sales. Roche had an estimated $49.8-billion, Pfizer had $49.6 billion and Merk reported $42.2-billion in income. And that's only a few of the Big Pharma Players.

    According to the Pew Charitable Trust, the amount of estimated total annual marketing costs for Big Pharma ranges as high as $130-billion. Some of that money goes to pay heavy fines levied by the Federal Drug Administration for promoting some drugs for uses other than the specific ailment used to gain FDA approval. 

    Guess who the spending leader is? I can hardly wait to disclose that it is Johnson and Johnson, which paid for $1.87-billion worth of advertising in 2013. J and J is big in baby oil and Band-Aids but it also leads the world in promotion of pharmaceuticals made by manufacturing firms it owns.

   Something else, as an aside. If you've ever been in a doctor's waiting room and a well-dressed man or woman carrying an expensive briefcase breezes in for an appointment and is promptly ushered back to Doctor X, you can believe that this is your nearest encounter with a "detail person," one of 81,000 pharmaceutical sales representatives employed in the U.S.A. Their time is spent on face to face meetings with physicians and officers of drug store chains. They also are important for the distribution of free samples to doctors, which Pew insists it may add up to another $5.7-billion in total costs for the major pharmaceutical makers.

    Of all of the facts, and I can appreciate that by now your eyes are glazing-over, this is the most amazing one as far as I'm concerned: only two nations in all the world allow prescription drugs to be advertised on TV: The U.S.A. and New Zealand. How does politics in only two countries play into this, and why is it true for only us and and the Kiwis? The secret word for Americans citizens is "lobbyists." We'll have to try and unravel that ball of yarn another time. Also, another whole book can revolve around the costs associated with research and development, although we concede it is enormous.

    How do these factors affect the comparably high cost of meds to Americans?

    And yes, there's also something else: why does the same medicine made in America costs less if purchased in another country, say in some exotic location, such as Canada?

     In the meantime, I await with fear and trembling the moment when the question comes spontaneously from the mouth of a small child, who is watching TV with me: "Grandpa, what is E.D.?" I may have to fake a cerebral accident or have a real stroke. This pang of trepidation came again yesterday evening during a commercial break in a documentary, as some twenties, perhaps thirties—something lounged seductively on a a big brass bed and made the spiel for one of the E.D. pills. What do you do when there are children in the room and you don't control the controller? Do you also just fake deafness and stare at the screen silently or hum as loudly as I do until the next commercial begins, trying not to pay attention while the couple portrayed gaze with great affection into their companion's eyes and the voice-over drones on and on.

    Frankly, this business of joining hands while bathing in twin tubs in the outdoors bothers me greatly. What sort of a society would consider that as being normal? Worse yet, what's next? No thank you, I don't want to know!

    Yes, I've taken in account freedom of speech and press, how important advertising is to our economy, government intrusion by the FCC, etcetera. but I can't help wondering what and how other parents and grandparents deal with the need to explain the ramifications of these E.D. advertisements to children under the age of 50. 

    Finally, what is even more amazing to this commentator: ever wonder why TV broadcasts of those many medicines approved by the FDA are followed by a litany of side-effects; "may be associated with cancer of the pancreas, decrease in red blood cells, diabetes, bloating or complete depletion of your 401-K, etc."  All the rest of that fine print on the bottom of the display is known as a disclaimer, and is done in order to comply with Federal Drug Administration regulations requiring it be done (This is not a bad thing).  However, when I hear the possible adverse effects, some of which we are told may lead to a fatal outcome, it tends to make many meds hard for me to swallow, even when prescribed.

    -Phil Richardson, Observer and Storyteller. 

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