PhRMA kicks off new ad campaign to doctor pharma's tarred image

PhRMA's Robert Zirkelbach

Big pharma knows that lawmakers are hopping mad over drug price increases. So the industry is launching an ad campaign to try to repair its tarred image as the debate over drug pricing rages on.

Leading industry group the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) said that it will spend several million dollars this year--10% more than in 2015--on digital, radio and print ads that focus on the brighter side of business. PhRMA will run many of the ads on social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter--where much of the drug pricing debate has played out--because the group wants to home in on federal and state lawmakers, policy analysts and other "political influencers," PhRMA's senior VP of communications Robert Zirkelbach told The Wall Street Journal. Some ads will also run in select states that have yet to be determined, Zirkelbach said.

Patients with success stories and scientists working on drug development will feature heavily in the new ads. PhRMA wants to "make sure the patient story is front-and-center in any discussion of the biopharmaceutical industry and drug costs," Zirkelbach said, and the group is painting a rosy portrait.

In late January, the group unveiled an online video ad on sites such as CNN.com that features a Merck ($MRK) researchers dressed in a white lab coat and safety goggles, and two patients. The trio jointly narrates the video, with patients saying that "thanks to new treatments, we're fighting back," the WSJ reports. The Merck researcher chimes in, saying that "(e)very day brings us closer to a cure." The company declined to comment to the newspaper.

PhRMA is also airing ads on two stations in Washington, DC, one of which talks up the Obama administration's recent plan to roll out a "moonshot" research program to find a cure for cancer. "America's biopharmaceutical companies support this goal and have been at the task for decades," a narrator says in the radio spot, as quoted by the WSJ.

This is not the first time PhRMA has responded to the pricing debate. The group has taken a heavier hand in the fallout since Turing Pharmaceuticals last year bought toxoplasmosis drug Daraprim and jacked up the price by 5,000%, sparking immediate backlash from presidential hopefuls such as Hillary Clinton and lawmakers.

Since then, PhRMA has worked hard to dissociate itself from Turing and Valeant ($VRX), which is also under scrutiny for its price-setting ways. It has said publicly that those two companies resemble hedge funds more than drugmakers. It also has argued that "insurers, not drug companies, are forcing patients to shoulder more of the costs through higher deductibles and copays while also adding coverage restrictions."

Even though the PhRMA is used to responding to public backlash, going directly to consumers is a new tactic for the group.

"This is not something we've historically done, but given the focus and attention on these cases, and how far they depart from how our industry truly operates, we feel it's important for people to understand that there is a different approach other than what you're seeing in the news," Robert Zirkelbach, PhRMA senior VP of communications, told FiercePharmaMarketing in November.

- read the WSJ story (sub. req.)

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