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Memes: How is Pharma Using Them?


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-02-01-2015
Issue 14

The interesting dynamic of industry-targeted memes in social media-still a quiet treading ground for pharmas.

Pharma and life science (PLS) companies spend massive amounts advertising their wares to a wide range of consumers, including patients and healthcare professionals. Because of perpetual regulatory uncertainty about how to do so in the modern/social media sphere, pharma's voice is awfully quiet outside of traditional venues like print, TV, in doctors' offices and at professional events.

Casey McDonald

Memes are tough to control no matter what industry you're in. (If you don't know the term, Google it before reading Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, published in 1976-a great read by the way!) And in the highly regulated, to put it mildly, environment of pharmaceutical marketing, it's safe to say that PLS companies are very limited at creating, using, and controlling these rapidly moving and dynamic idea vehicles.

Clearly, Internet memes are mostly critical of the industry, and PLS companies remain quiet. You won't see Gilead tweeting much (or responding to tweets) about drug pricing. Meanwhile, companies enter discussions in less-regulated industries. For example, @MonsantoCo joined Twitter three years before @LillyPad and has tweeted twice as many times.

This is not to say that sans regulation, social media and the industry would suddenly get along (i.e., you can't blame everything on regulation).

Negative memes


#PharmaProfits doesn't return many tweets, but the idea that greedy pharma companies are reaping too high profits by way of robbery is widely shared. Huffington Post article-almost 20,000 Facebook shares or likes and over 650 tweets: huff.to/1n5M6pj.

Pharma spend: Marketing vs. R&D

Not to be overly meta here on the topic of marketing, but a widely held meme is that PLS companies ought to spend more on R&D and less on marketing.

Pharma does spend more on marketing than R&D, references this BBC article: bbc.in/1qrtWAe.

Still, on the topic of drug marketing, this petition to the FDA to ban direct-to-consumer advertising looks to be approaching 52,000 online signatures: bit.ly/1t7I0Fx.


One of pharma's most controversial topics of the last few years has been inversions. This Rolling Stone article has been shared on Facebook and Twitter over 13,000 times: rol.st/VQImQN.


Media has been positive and negative for the industry (and western governments) regarding Ebola. Clinical trials have been gearing up with initiations announced this week by J&J, which is good.

But as vox.com wrote in December, as far as Americans could care, the Ebola meme lost muster by December: bit.ly/1CBRIEp. The article received more than 3,500 shares on Twitter and Facebook.

Positive memes

Clearly, patient advocacy groups communicate well.


$115 million raised-enough said.

But PLS companies have had to be a little more creative, sometimes edgy to start conversations.

Pfizer's "Get Old" campaign has certainly been an attempt to tackle various aging and health topics head on. #FOGO (fear of getting old) doesn't quite have the same popularity as YOLO (you only live once) or #BOGO (buy one get one), but it's an interesting angle: https://www.getold.com.

Searching #FOGO and Pfizer does make me nervous that I'll start getting more Vi&GRa% emails in my spam folder. And #viagra commercials are a completely separate meme.

Breathless Moments

Bayer's "Breathless Moments" campaign raising awareness about chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH) certainly has its appeal. The company, along with the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, announced CTEPH Awareness Day in a November press release followed by a three-month photo contest to evoke "inspirational moments in our lives" that can leave us breathless.

Of course, illustrating that social media may not be pharma's strong suit, @pharmaguy pointed out that breathlessmoments.com is owned by a wedding photographer: bit.ly/15DYI5p.

In addition to the website conflict and poor search engine optimization, there is little-to-no activity on Facebook or Instagram.

Pharm Exec will wait to see how the photo contest unfolds at breathlessmoments.cteph.com, but, meanwhile, I might have to include some Instagram pics of my own #nofilter.

Casey McDonald is Pharm Exec's Senior Editor. He can be reached at cmcdonald@advanstar.com.

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