04/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pharma: Still Chasing Skirts

As someone who spent ten years inside the pharmaceutical industry, I can tell you one thing for sure: Big Pharma goes where the money is. And the money is with the ladies.

Chicks matter

Although women are certainly not the only targets of drug ads, winning the female audience is critical to the success of any given drug. Women are more proactive about their health, more likely to "talk to their doctor", more likely to encourage their husbands to seek medical treatment (than their husband is to seek it himself), and more likely to manage the healthcare for the entire family. It is just darned good business for pharma to set their sights on the ladies. But what is good for business -- explosive prescription sales of new drugs -- is not necessarily good for public health.

Newer is not better, Dorothy

The vast majority of the drug ads we see are for the newest and most expensive drugs available. These drugs are exceptionally profitable for the industry, but newer is definitely not better when it comes to patient safety. Few people realize that "new" means that the drug has been tried in a smaller number of patients and for a shorter period of time than drugs that have been around for years. Despite these limited studies, new meds quickly reach millions of consumers through very effective direct-to-consumer advertising.

It is often not until these drugs are consumed by the masses that potential problems (or public awareness of problems) in the form of dangerous and deadly side effects begin to arise. Patients who take "new" drugs become unknowing guinea pigs.

Dorothy Hamill spinning around the rink and driving millions to their docs for Vioxx served as a testament to this scenario. But even the Vioxx fallout has not stopped Merck's machine as they now push marketing and mandates for Gardasil, their HPV vaccine.

Reeling 'em in

Women need to know that they are being studied, targeted, and manipulated by very effective advertising that has little to do with good science. The ads and the target markets are heavily researched by internal marketing departments, branding experts and advertising companies.

In order to effectively drive sales with the important female demographic, companies first identify which issues in life women are most concerned and/or insecure about. They then develop their entire marketing campaign around those issues rather than the specific science of the drug. Big bucks go into finding the emotional hot button for any given pill or medical problem. The majority of ads feature sexy, smiling, happy people -- walking by the lake, rolling around with their children, or on a fun/hot date. We all want a little piece of that, don't we? Pharma knows how to play off of women's deepest insecurities and our biggest dreams...and it works.

The marketing of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was a perfect example. The industry capitalized on the vanity and emotional fears of women -- resulting in billions of dollars in prescription revenue for the pharmaceutical industry and questionable efficacy and damaging side effects to women worldwide.

And yet...the beat goes on

We as women are marching into our doctors' offices in record numbers demanding the latest and greatest pills we see on television. These ads paint a beautiful Norman Rockwell life on the screen. They do a wonderful job of convincing us that we too can be this happy, this sexy, this beautiful if only we would take this pill. The pharmaceutical companies are not selling us a drug; they are selling us a lifestyle.

The most severe drawbacks occur when the commercials result in us medicalizing our problems. Pharma has done a masterful job of creating illness and reasons for us to take more pills. Shyness, road rage, and even menstruation can now be treated with a drug. Thus we have begun demanding drugs we often don't need and that could have serious potential for harm and sometimes even death.

The other drawback is that these ads create a false sense of security. We subconsciously feel we can be a little more reckless with our nutrition, or activity level, or even sleep because there is now a pill to take care of all of the issues that result from not taking good care of ourselves.

I am a reasonable person. I am a mom and wife who understands that in the right context, we need prescription medication to be available. That said, I am in the minority of consumers who knows both sides of the issue. And that knowledge can be our most powerful tool when it comes to effectively managing our own health or the health of our families.

Get enough of us gals knowing and we can potentially force the hand of pharma to concentrate on producing truly superior, safer, and more cost-effective drugs rather than producing effective marketing campaigns. Because they can't sell what we won't buy.