From The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t – and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner (pp. 130-31):
Another, subtler form of fear marketing popped up in my doctor’s waiting room one day. A large poster on the wall entertained bored patients with “One Hundred Ways to Live to One Hundred.” Most of the one hundred items listed were printed in small, pale letters, and they were about as ingisghtful and provocative as Mother’s Day cards. “Number 1: Enjoy yourself.” “Number 73: Soak in the tub.” But seven items were printed in large, black letters that made them the visual focus of the poster. The first of these was “Number 22: Exercise regularly.” Hard to object to that. But then came “Number 44: Reduce the amount of cholesterol in your diet.” That’s a bit odd. Cholesterol isn’t inherently dangerous, so you may not need to reduce your cholesterol. It’s also hard to see why cholesterol would rank among the fundamentals of staying alive, along with exercise. It is not remotely as important as eating lots of fruits and vegetables, not smoking, and many other things that aren’t mentioned on the poster. So why does it get top billing over them?
Hints of an explanation appeared in the items that followed. “Number 56: Take your medicine as prescribed.” Then “Number 62: If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke and stopped taking your medication, speak to your doctor.” And “Number 88: Ask your doctor about new medications.” Finally, there was “Number 100: Listen to your doctor.”
Taken as a whole, the poster’s basic message is that pills are absolutely essential for a long life. That’s not the message you will hear from disinterested medical experts, but it is what you would expect to hear from a pharmaceutical company like the Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Group, identified as the maker of the poster in small print at the bottom left-hand corner. Bristol-Myers Squibb is also the maker of Pravachol, a cholesterol-reducing drug. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, American sales of Pravachol earned Bristol-Myers Squibb $1.3 billion in 2005 alone, and that’s just a sliver of the market for cholesterol pills. Worldwide, Pfizer’s Lipitor racked up $12.2 billion in 2005.
This sort of camouflaged marketing is typical of the pharmaceutical industry, and it’s not limited to doctor’s offices. Health lobby groups, professional associations, and activists are routinely funded by pharmaceutical giants. Much of this is uncontroversial, but critics say Big Pharma deliberately blurs the line between disinterested advice and sales pitches. “Would the pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars a year if they didn’t think it was valuable? Of course not,” said Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine and former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. That’s troubling enough, but more disturbing than Big Pharma’s marketing methods are its goals.
It is not in the economic interest of a corporation selling pills to unhealthy people for people to be healthy, or rather – to be more precise – for them to perceive themselves to be healthy. Their actual physical state is irrelevant. What matter is whether someone believe there is something wrong that can be cured with a pill. If so, the corporation has a potential customer. If not, no sale. It doesn’t take an MBA to figure out what pharmaceutical companies need to do to expand their markets and boost sales.