Big Pharma and politics in an election year: Ad spending soars in efforts to influence the influencers

Election year uncertainty and potential changes in Washington, D.C., have spurred the regulated pharma industry to increase ad spending to reach influencers. (Getty Images)

Pharma and politics are more entwined than ever. Legislators not only decide on pharma regulations and policies, but also help to shape cultural perceptions of the industry. It’s not surprising, then, that pharma ad spending directed at politicians and influencers would ramp up during election years.

That’s the case in 2020 as the presidential election looms, according to data from MediaRadar's advertising sales and analytics platform.

Across Sunday morning talk shows—where pundits gather to predict and analyze politics, economics and news—spending is way up: 150% by Pfizer and almost 100% by GlaxoSmithKline, for instance, Todd Krizelman, CEO and co-founder of MediaRadar, said. Some of the non-TV media where pharma is placing ads include publications such as The Economist, The New Yorker, Politico and CQ Roll Call. The ads all point to specific targeting of the people involved in, or influencing, national policies that impact pharma.

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“This is not commentary about whether this is good or bad, it’s just the current perspective right now. We definitely see these big run ups in advertising to inform and influence in advance of the presidential election,” Krizelman said, noting there were similar trends in advance of the 2016 election.

The content of the advertising is different as well. Instead of typical pharma product marketing, the message behind the ads is more about why pharma is important to the economy or how pharma companies are investing in the next big medical cure.

Krizelman gave several examples. One Pfizer series of ads talks about how the race to finding new medicines is “always a marathon.” The race is for the tortoise, not the hare, and lists the thousands of compounds and lab tests involved, as well as thousands of scientists and patients and “12 years of relentless hard work” to take a drug from discovery to approval. Another series of ads from Merck showcases images of researchers and scientists labeled as inventors.

“They show them as nice people, people who have children, people who are helping to save lives. For all the marketing speak, I think that's a reasonable point. Basically, they are doing good in the world—it’s not like they’re creating products that no one cares about or no one uses,” he said.

The pharma influencer-directed ads also almost always include links to microsites or dedicated websites where viewers or readers can learn more. On those sites, the companies present more information and education that help position them in a positive light.

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Of course, pharma isn't the only regulated industry increasing spend in election years. Energy companies such as BP and transportation companies such as Boeing, as well as insurance companies and private holding groups such as Koch Enterprises, have also ramped up influencer ad spending, Krizelman said.

"One of the reasons it’s so exaggerated now, and this is just our own sense, is that major regulatory agencies will get a new leader if there’s a change in party. For example, the head of the FDA, the head of the FTC could change," he said.