Big Pharma Has a Big PR Problem

It's one of the least-respected industries in America.

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It’s no surprise that the public doesn’t have much trust for “big pharma” — the industry’s questionable practices have inspired countless parodies and a sea of sputtering editorials. But just how big of a reputation problem does the pharmaceutical industry have? According to Harris Poll’s latest Reputation Quotient study, it’s officially not pretty.

The poll has big pharma ranked ninth out of 14 industries, landing just above another much-maligned practice perceived to put profits above the people it is meant to protect: insurance companies.

Yikes.

So exactly what has landed this industry — whose main purpose is (supposed to be) creating medications with the potential to save and improve lives — in such murky water?

Two major marketing strategies on which big pharma has long relied take most of the credit. The first is direct-to consumer advertising; it’s nearly impossible to get through an entire TV show without at least one drug commercial featuring a personified depression cloud or a bad metaphor for erectile dysfunction. And many legitimate concerns have been raised about how this type of blanket targeting may be changing the doctor/patient relationship and the act of prescribing medication for the worse.

The second is the hugely expensive and poorly disclosed practice of marketing to doctors. This strategy runs the gamut from drug reps buying lunch for every employee in a medical office to a drug company paying large sums to have doctors serve as “thought leaders” who push certain drugs on other doctors by taking them out to dinner to “discuss” new products.

What can the industry do to regain the public’s trust? We’re aware that, unless legislation is someday passed to force the industry’s hand, neither of the above marketing strategies are likely to change. But might reforming these practices, as some have suggested, make any headway?

“We are talking about companies that deal with people’s health,” Mark Kessel, a private equity firm cofounder, once told Forbes. “They can certainly change the tenor of those ads and make them much more informational for patients.”

But even if it’s a small step in the right direction, would replacing the green, incandescent, sleep-inducing moths and frowning depression clouds with actual information be enough? If the below segment from a recent episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is any indication, we’re thinking… no.