Novartis ($NVS) teamed up with athletes for doctor marketing

We're all familiar with celebrity pitches in DTC drug advertising. Sally Field and the bone drug Boniva, Brooke Shields and the eyelash-growing med Latisse, and so on. But what about celebrities helping pharma market its wares to doctors?

Apparently, Novartis ($NVS) has done just that, using professional athletes as a draw at doctor dinners. As the Washington Times reports, athletes such as New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Baseball Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench would show up at Novartis-hosted doctor events, give short speeches, answer questions about their careers, and then pose for individual photos with the physicians. Sales reps would later bring the photos when they called on doctors for detailing.

"I hope someone at the company got a fat bonus, because this is one of the most clever schemes I've seen to provide gifts to doctors," Paul Thacker, an investigator for the nonpartisan watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, told the Times. "If you shove a bag of cash in a doctor's pocket, he might feel like a common streetwalker, but if you give him a picture of his childhood idol, then he might feel like everyone is just being pals."

The drugmaker paid some 150 former and current sports idols a total of $3.6 million for the doctor dinners from 2006 to 2009, Times-obtained documents show. Novartis wouldn't comment on the dinners for the newspaper, citing litigation with the Nelson Group, the marketing firm that organized the events. "Novartis is committed to promoting its products in an ethical and compliant manner," a spokesman said.

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