Now, one biotechnology company has sponsored the making of a "documentary" movie, just released in theaters, that just happens to underline the suffering that having particular diseases entails, diseases that are now remarkably treatable by drugs that include the company's product. Per the Philadelphia Inquirer,
Pharmaceutical promotion is going undercover to a theater near you.
Starting next month, moviegoers in select cities will be able to see the heart-wrenching real stories of three people suffering from immune diseases - rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn's disease - in a new kind of documentary.
What viewers will not see, unless they wait for the last line of the ending credits, is that the film was produced by Centocor Inc., the Horsham-based biotechnology subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson and maker of the No. 1 treatment for those diseases.
Nor will they hear the name of Centocor's drug, Remicade, or about its high cost, even though the patients are shown getting the treatment and talking about their recoveries.
The film, titled Innerstate, is the drug industry's boldest foray into a form of indirect promotions called "patient education" or "disease awareness," as opposed to more explicit drug ads on TV, infomercials or pitches to doctors.
In this case, Centocor's director of public relations, Michael Parks, actually served as executive producer and personally sifted through the stories of 40 patients to pick the three for the documentary. He is overseeing its theatrical release.
"This is not about Remicade. It's about elevating public awareness of these conditions," said Parks, who declined to say how much the project is costing.
Alexander Sugerman-Brozan, director of the Boston-based Prescription Access Litigation Project, which opposes "ridiculous, questionable or manipulative" drug advertising, said the film represented a questionable trend in health information.
"We need to be skeptical of disease-awareness campaigns that come from a company with a vested interest," said Sugerman-Brozan, who has not yet seen the film. Industry advocates call "patient education" a powerful way to push valid health information to a jaundiced public - even if it means omitting the sponsor and product name.
"It's about building trust in the message," said Barbara Pagano, a senior vice president at HealthEd Inc., a Clark, N.J., patient-education consulting firm, which had no role in the film.
"It's ironic, yes, but with the reputation that the pharma industry has, it makes a difference if the sponsor is identified. If Centocor's name was on top, people wouldn't watch it. People would think it's a commercial," Pagano said.
Even without naming Remicade, Centocor stands to gain from increased disease-awareness because, as the market leader, it tends to capture most new prescriptions.
"Anything that benefits the overall market tends to benefit the market leaders the most," Pagano said.
So, let's see, a biotechnology company produces a film that highlights the suffering produced by particular diseases, and the wonders of new treatments, one of which happens to be made by the self-same company. By the way, the company's director of public relations was the executive producer, and is overseeing the film's release. Yet the name of the company, or its product, never appears in the film until the end of the credit-roll.
Why make the film if not to increase sales of the drug? But, the film was made to look like a documentary, not an advertisement, and its ties to the company that makes the drug were made as inconspicuous as possible.
So clearly, this appears to be the latest form of marketing based on deception, that is, stealth marketing.
If Centocor thinks its message is so strong and important, why didn't it attach its name overtly and proudly to the message? How much should one trust a company that won't put its name on its own marketing messages?