NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Forget Congress and the Food and Drug Administration. More worrisome to the pharmaceutical industry these days is YouTube.
A former sales rep for Eli Lilly and Co.'s antipsychotic Zyprexa appears on a YouTube video revealing what Lilly officials told him to say about the drug's side effects.
The online-video site famous for exploding Diet Coke bottles is blasting Big Pharma as YouTube gains popularity among drug-industry critics as a means to influence public opinion on the industry. The most damning of the videos are two five-minute segments -- one from a former sales rep for Eli Lilly and Co.'s antipsychotic Zyprexa, who reveals what Lilly officials told him to say about the drug's side effects. The other is a trailer for a 46-minute documentary called "Big Bucks, Big Pharma" from the Media Education Foundation, a Northampton, Mass., group that produces and distributes films intended to "inspire reflection" about American mass media.
'Here to stay'
These budding Michael Moores are a worry to the industry "because there are no internal controls on YouTube," says Dorothy Wetzel, former consumer-marketing chief at Pfizer and now senior VP-management supervisor at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, where she works on AstraZeneca accounts. "But," she added, "you have to get used to it, because it's here to stay."
"Big Bucks, Big Pharma" is a critical look at the $5 billion practice of direct-to-consumer advertising. The documentary claims the industry manipulates both consumers and physicians with ads, and includes interviews with such notables as Dr. Marcia Angell from Harvard Medical School and the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, along with Dr. Bob Goodman of Columbia University Medical Center, founder of No Free Lunch, a nonprofit group that condemns the practice of physicians accepting free lunches and gifts from pharmaceutical sales reps.
"I can't help but think there are millions of people taking drugs they don't need and that may even be harmful," Ms. Angell says in the documentary.
Since the film came out in November, producers not only have been selling it on the Media Education Foundation's website, they have also adopted the Mel Gibson approach of grass-roots marketing. "Big Bucks, Big Pharma" is being seeded with senior-citizen groups, civic organizations and colleges.
Eli Lilly declined to comment on the Zyprexa video on YouTube, which features the purported sales rep detailing what the company told him to say about the drug's side effects. The New York Times in December reported that studies on the frequency of weight gain among Zyprexa users were under-reported by Lilly.
"We were told ... to downplay those side effects, to focus on the efficacies of the drug," the drug rep says.
He also detailed how he could manipulate drug-study statistics without lying. "An old stats professor once told me that statistics are like prisoners: Torture them long enough, and they'll tell you whatever you want to hear," he said.
Doug Wood, a New York-based attorney for the global law firm Reed Smith, said there is little pharmaceutical companies can do unless they have been slandered.
But the drug companies aren't taking it lying down. In fact, some are trying to use YouTube to their own advantage by posting entertaining and positive films about their products.
GlaxoSmithKline now has its own one minute, 43-second video on YouTube for Restless Legs Syndrome.
Ms. Wetzel said she believes more drug companies and ad agencies will adopt such an approach. "The conversation about health care goes on," she said, "and we're going to have to deal with it."