Paul Holmes

Merck's new ads will prove most effective if they facilitate national healthcare dialogue

Merck's new ads will prove most effective if they facilitate national healthcare dialogue

It's been more than a decade since the pharmaceutical industry launched an ad campaign designed to repair the reputation damage it suffered during the debate over healthcare reform - most of which focused, rightly or wrongly, on drug prices and drug-company profits.

There was nothing wrong with the PhRMA ad campaign, which focused on industry innovation, underscoring the advances made in combating deadly diseases with profiles of both researchers and patients. But it's probably fair to say most Americans today don't feel any better about the pharma industry than they did back then.

That, presumably, is why Merck is working with Ogilvy & Mather on a new corporate ad campaign: "Merck. Where patients come first." Some of the ads will focus on innovation. One features kids reacting with puzzlement to questions about measles, mumps, and chicken pox - diseases that have been largely eradicated due to the industry's successful research and development efforts. Others will discuss Merck's programs to provide reduced-price or free drugs to the less fortunate.

Merck, to its credit, has focused on two big issues that need to be addressed in any debate over the pharma industry: drug development and drug delivery. But I do question whether an ad campaign - no matter how skillfully executed - can possibly address the complexity of those issues and the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of the debate over the future of healthcare in this country.

History has shown that a free-market, private- enterprise system is by far the best way to discover and bring to market new pharma products. The vast majority of new drugs are developed by corporate researchers. Without the profit motive, it's highly likely that the pace of new discovery would slow considerably.

Yet experience also suggests that a free-market system is about the worst way to deliver new drugs to patients who need them. If you believe access to quality healthcare should be determined by need rather than ability to pay - that in a civilized society, good healthcare is a right rather than a privilege - then the current delivery system, which prices many pharmaceuticals out of ordinary Americans' reach, is unsustainable. That remains so even if pharma companies like Merck offer discounts or even free drugs to some especially needy patients.

One company can't solve these problems alone. Indeed, the entire industry can't solve them in isolation. A national debate is needed, one involving all players in the healthcare industry, politicians and regulators, and patients themselves. An ad campaign can be a starting point, but pharma's longstanding reputation problems won't be solved until we as a nation debate the larger issues.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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