Inside Big Pharma’s Epic Multimillion Dollar PR Campaign to Save Its Reputation

Stephen J. Ubl
UNITED STATES - MARCH 3: Stephen J. Ubl, CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America is photographed in his Washington office, March 3, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Photograph by Tom Williams via CQ-Roll Call, Inc.

Big pharma isn’t planning on “going gentle into that good night.”

The drug industry’s largest trade group and lobbying arm, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), launched an expansive new campaign Monday aimed at getting the public – and, critically, lawmakers – to sympathize with the increasingly maligned industry, which has been slammed left and right for its habit of exorbitant drug price hikes.

The multimillion dollar GOBOLDLY campaign will include “national TV, print, digital, radio and out-of-home advertising,” according to a PhRMA press release, and is aimed at reminding the sector’s most important stakeholders of the groundbreaking work that it does.

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“Thanks to the tireless work of biopharmaceutical researchers and scientists, we have entered a new era of medicine that is transforming the way we prevent and treat disease,” said PhRMA CEO and president Stephen Ubl in a statement. “This campaign spotlights their perseverance and unwavering commitment to American patients for whom we all work.

“We will also be convening events with stakeholders all across the country to discuss ways we can work together to make our health care system more responsive to the needs of patients,” he added.

GOBOLDLY’s first major advertisement is a sleekly produced ode to biopharmaceutical innovation that invokes the famous Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and name checks the most exciting recent advances in the life sciences, such as gene editing and cancer immunotherapy.

The justification for the campaign is clear: For more than a year, politicians seeking the presidency have been slamming the likes of Martin Shkreli and Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX) for outrageous price hikes on old and niche drugs. And while drug makers originally thought that President Donald Trump would be a far more enthusiastic partner, he said that drug makers are “getting away with murder” during his first major post-New Year press conference. Trump went on to insist that his administration will chase direct negotiations and bidding in Medicare as a way to keep drug prices in check – a policy that PhRMA vehemently opposes.

During an appearance on CNBC Monday, Ubl said that there was too much focus on people in “hoodies” (a reference to Shkreli’s irreverent and nonchalant style) and not enough on those “in lab coats” who are developing life-saving therapies.

PhRMA has been preparing this PR onslaught for a while, too. Right before the presidential election, the group hiked its membership dues by 50%, helping it raise another $100 million per year to be funneled into pro-pharma campaigns. The lobbying outfit also successfully defeated one of the most high-profile drug price cap referenda in the country in California’s Proposition 61. The measure failed handily in a deep blue state despite initially polling well thanks, in large part, to the pharmaceutical industry’s $110 million spending spree to defeat it.

Whether the latest campaign will be as successful is still an open question. Trump has already said that drug price bidding will become a reality despite drug makers’ considerable political and financial clout; but Congress may not be nearly as eager as the new president, especially in the wake of this upcoming lobbying blitz.

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