Not long ago, over 50,000 people died from taking a prescribed drug. This is a true story.

Vioxx was a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID, like ibuprofen. It was released by Merck in 1999. It was hugely popular. It stayed on the market for four years.

Millions of people were encouraged to take it, and did.

It was recalled in fall of 2004. Some say half a million Americans died in related complications. Typically, the figure rests closer to 60,000. 60,000 Americans, whose death is traceable to Vioxx. That's a lot.

Opportunity, knocks

Pfizer, seeing the recall coming from miles away, spent $71 million advertising a similar, competing product called Celebrex for nine months in anticipation of the Vioxx recall. (Specifically, from the start of 2004 up to Vioxx’s recall in September (source: TMS Media Intelligence)).

Pfizer's marketing investment is something to think about. Why was it so obvious to Pfizer that there would be an opening in the market nine months before the actual recall? Did customers taking Vioxx know so surely the product was about to be whisked from the market? (Doubt it!)

Regardless, for Pfizer it paid off. Sales of Celebrex hit $2 billion the following year. What's $71 million in marketing costs when we're talking billions in the next breath? Bear in mind that pharma companies spend about 75% of their marketing dollars targeting medical professionals, not consumers. So unless you're a doctor you probably didn't notice any of it at the time. 

The vioxx lesson

There is huge risk in bringing products to market in the medical field, particularly when it comes to treatments. And it's important to remember, whether in marketing these products or using them, that not every solution works the same for every patient.

A disinformation campaign can easily show that lavender oil doesn't cause relaxation. But that doesn't mean it doesn't work. It means a study somewhere found that it didn't work, in some conditions, for certain people. And this is beyond the Placebo Effect. This is literally that any physical thing will have different effects on various physical things. Cooks know this. Chemists know this. 

For me, one Advil does the trick every time. (Does it matter that I only take one about twice per year, when strictly necessary?) For some people, Advil just doesn't work well. And some "tested" treatments don't work very well at all. Which is the Vioxx story.

It's important to keep these things in mind when marketing in the pharma field.