In the evening, when the kids are in bed and I get a chance to watch a few moments of television, I'm reminded of just how much the landscape has changed in the past five or more years when it comes to how large pharmaceutical companies market their products. It seems I can't watch a sporting event or a movie without seeing advertisements for Lipitor, Prevacid, Ambien and countless others. I've come to the conclusion that "dry mouth" is a very, very common side effect of prescription medications, followed closely by bloating and cramping.
I've also been amused in the past when I've seen an advertisement for the newest prescription medication numerous times over a month or more and I still couldn't, for the life of me, tell what condition it treats—even though I know the side effects by heart.
Lately, though, some market research folks must have figured out how boring, bland and transparent all these, look-the-same, feel-the-same TV spots are. Because now we are treated to groups of women sitting at lunch talking about their new birth control prescription and having playful, conversation-like banter about the side effects. Gosh! I never knew dry mouth and abdominal cramps could be so fun.
Magazine and newspapers are similarly afflicted with this direct-to-the-consumer approach to medications. Only now we're treated to one beautiful color page showing how much better your life would be if only you discovered [insert medication brand name here]. This is all followed by two full pages of information about said medication, printed so amazingly small you could reasonably assume that the publishing industry has now incorporated the kind of nanofluidic and miniaturization technology many of you use regularly in your high-throughput screening.
And if you stop to think about how prevalent these kinds of marketing efforts are, it doesn't take much more than a lowly editor like me to imagine the billions of dollars these corporations are spending to get you to take their pill—even if you don't know what it treats.
I'm probably too dense to figure out why this is a productive use of a pharma companies' dollars. After all, if it didn't work, they'd stop running the ads, right?
Well I hope so.
But let's imagine imagine for a minute that I'm a share holder in AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer or Novartis. It doesn't matter what large pharma company you mention just pick one. For the record, I've not invested in any of these companies, at least directly—there's my obligatory disclaimer as a member of the press.
What I'd be feeling as an investor in these companies, especially these days, is that they are trying to squeeze the last bit of water out of a rock—a rock whose patent protections will soon be expiring. And once that happens, then what?
These days, it's a bit of a stretch for a shareholder to simply take it on faith that once the patent protection expires on blockbuster drug A, that blockbuster drug B will take up the slack and everyone will live profitably ever after.
With a few notable exceptions, the share price performance of the pharmaceutical industry has not been all that strong—no news flash there—and I'm at a loss to see how some companies are going to pull themselves out of that rut. There is simply not much room for error in an industry that has such a long time horizon in new product development, yet must track how they are doing every three months.
Now, in relation to big pharma, use the oil tanker analogy of how long it takes to turn one around. It has to be daunting to try to get the ship stopped and headed in a new direction when you don't know if there will be enough fuel (i.e. cash) left to set off in a new direction.
Ok, I know some of you will say that the pharma sector has actually performed reasonably well over the past two years. There is no arguing this. But at the same time, if I'm a buy-and-hold investor (there are still some people like this I've heard), there are a number of companies out there who have performed well in the markets these last two years but are only getting back to exactly where they were in terms of share price some five years later.
Which brings me back to all those wonderful television commercials. Fair or not, these ads make me feel like the pharma companies are diverting money from where it needs to be: in the hands of research scientists, doing the unglamorous work of finding next decade's important therapeutics.