Lessons On Why Marketing From Purdue Pharma Was So Corrupt

In August of 2023, the most popular series on Netflix today is “Painkiller.”  The story of Purdue Pharmaceutical.

It starts with a gut-wrenching scene. A mother whose son was killed by #OxyContin says “this series is based on real events, but some of it is fictionalized. But the death of my son was not. He was prescribed the drug at age 15 and died at the age of 32, alone. We miss him.”  The series provides clear lessons on why marketing from Purdue Pharma was so corrupt.  And why it must not be allowed to continue in the future.

For years, Purdue Pharma was able to get away with marketing this medication that contributed to the death of over 250K people in America along and the addiction of untold thousands more. I am grateful that Netflix is bringing this story to us so that we take every effort to stop this type of tragedy in the future.

Professional Healthcare Marketing

Having worked in the industry over 20 years, I would like to offer perspective on the story. Marketing by Purdue concentrated almost exclusively on healthcare providers and agencies. Purdue Pharma focused heavily on selling OxyContin to doctors, promoting it as a “safe and effective solution for pain management.” They utilized sales representatives to visit doctors’ offices and provide information about the drug’s benefits while downplaying its potential for addiction. Some reports suggest that Purdue Pharma incentivized doctors to prescribe OxyContin through gifts, paid speaking engagements, and other perks.

Even the America Medical Association was associated with this marketing blitz.  In an article published in 2021, Mother Jones reported that:  “Between 2002 and 2018, the AMA and the organization’s philanthropic arm, the AMA Foundation, received more than $3 million from Purdue Pharma—ranking them among Purdue’s top-paid third-party groups, according to previously unreported court documents.”  The relationship between Purdue and the AMA was scandalous and certainly contributed to over prescribing of the medication.

Many lessons were learned from the Purdue Pharma experience.  Current government regulations have substantially curtailed the marketing efforts of Pharma companies connected with medical professionals, advocacy groups and institutions.

Purdue Did Not Focus On Patient Marketing

Meanwhile, I want to comment on the other element of #Pharma marketing depicted in the series. In the second episode, it introduces a plot line about a patient who participates in the filming of how Oxy turned his life around. It echoes the type of marketing we often see for other drugs on TV (“ask your doctor if X is right for you…”).   Buried in the delivery of this plot line is the suggestion that the video was only used at conventions attended by Purdue Pharma sales reps.  It is possible that it was shown during these conventions.  That may have happened.  However, this video could never have been shared with patients directly.  And it NEVER would have been shared within a TV commercial.  Government regulations on this type of Direct to Consumer (DTC) marketing would definitely have blocked the use of such a video in any channel, including on the company website.

In cases where patients were manipulated, they were influenced by doctors (who share a burden of responsibility for addiction to this drug). Doctors should have stressed to patients the potential for this addition. And they should have suggested that patients get off the drug as soon as possible.  If anything, patient communication could also have been used to warn them about these dangers.

Most Pharma Companies Are Not Like Purdue Pharma

The story of Oxy is like a horrible accident on a highway. Terrible to watch yet hard to turn away. Blame is necessary, especially to the Sackler family who should be criminally prosecuted. However, it saddens me that the rest of the industry is under the shadow of this tragedy. During Covid, Pharma stepped up to find vaccines that saves the lives of thousands. Public approval of Pharma rose to around 60%.

Public opinion of Pharma dropped dramatically since that time.  And this series will probably drag it down further.  This is unfortunate.  At this moment, hundreds of scientists are working on vital medicines like the cures for cancer. They are unsung heroes. As you watch the series with disgust, please do not forget these heroes.  The guiding principle for the vast majority of Pharma companies is to provide products and services that positively impact the health and lives of patients.