John Oliver Takes on the Pharmaceutical Marketing Industry

FEBRUARY 15, 2015
John Oliver took on the issue of pharmaceutical advertising in his HBO segment, "Last Week Tonight," with his usual satirical and comical wit.

The show covered the concern that the pharmaceutical industry has buried itself deeply into the pockets of many prescribers, influencing the prescriptions they are giving to patients. The biggest spoof was in the last 3 minutes of the segment, where they created a faux drug ad based on “Pharmaceutical Money.” My favorite statements included:

“Pharmaceutical Money combines with the cash receptors in your doctor's wallet to create fast-acting financial relief, so your doctor can rest easy and enjoy life.”
“Side effects…include chronic overprescription, unusually heavy cash flow, dependency on free samples, inflammation of confidence, affluenza, and an increased tendency to prescribe off-label prescriptions.”

Overall, the spoof was quite humourous, especially for pharmacists who turn a critical eye to pharmaceutical ads on television.

Oliver not only used the humour to drive his point across, but also presented a critical view on several key areas. According to his team's research, 9 of 10 pharmaceutical companies spend more money on marketing than research annually.

Pharmaceutical companies have transitioned from giving away free junk to supplying free meals in order to maintain steady contact with physicians. The companies also purchase data from others (i.e. pharmacies and insurers) to determine the prescribing practices of physicians, and market appropriately to drive sales.

Another area that Oliver tackled was the use of physicians as so-called speakers or thought leaders. However, this isn’t just limited to physicians, as many in health care are involved, including pharmacists, nurses, and other allied health professionals.

If you want to see this in action, look at industry-sponsored events at national meetings that either deliver a meal or continuing education. Olibrt took a hard line against these speakers for delivering the "dribble" prepared by the companies with little input of their own.

Lastly, Oliver identified the US government's attempt to increase the transparency of how much pharmaceutical companies financially impact prescribers.

The US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services supports the Open Payments Database, which allows anyone to view how much money prescribers are receiving from outside sources. During their research, Oliver's team found physicians who were making more than $1 million dollars, and as little as $0.04.

For some pharmacists, this is old news, but for others, it might be something new.

Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Dy Aungst, PharmD, is an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at MCPHS University. He graduated from Wilkes University Nesbitt School of Pharmacy and completed a PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Residency at St. Luke's University Hospital, and then a Clinical Geriatric Fellowship at MCPHS University. He is passionate about the rise of technology in health care and its application to pharmacy. He has published primarily on the role of mobile technology and mHealth, and made multiple national and international presentations on those topics. He blogs at, and you can find him on Twitter @TDAungst.
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