Today is World AIDS Day, and in the scuzziest, most self-interested fashion Bristol-Myers is hitching its marketing wagon to the star of AIDS in Africa. Just about everyone knows that the marketing tactics of U.S. pharmaceutical companies are among the most patently hypocritical and self-serving in the corporate world. But Bristol-Myers’ Secure the Future campaign, which trumpets the company’s anti-AIDS efforts in Africa (“We call the program Secure the Future–Care and Support for Women and Children with HIV/AIDS”), reaches new heights of sheer effrontery. Man, I sure hope the folks at ACT UP are blogging about this!
>From what I can tell by reading the full page ad (“Village by village, orphan by orphan: how we’re fighting AIDS in Africa”) in today’s New York Times (A7 of the National edition–a pity I can’t give you a URL for the self-righteous ad [if anyone has a jpg version of this ad please let me know]), Bristol-Myers wants the world to know about all the good works it is doing in Africa to improve health care, fund clinics, care for orphaned children, etc. I really hate to throw a wrench into the marketing juggernaught here, but there’s just one itty bitty problem. There’s nary a word mentioned about the single most effective means of fighting AIDS in Africa: providing affordable retroviral medicines to treat everyone who needs it regardless of their ability to pay. Hmmm! It must’ve been an oversight. I’m sure they’d want to let the world know about how willing they’ve been to sell their drugs at sharply discounted prices because of the sheer enormity of the calamity befalling the continent, right??
It’s certainly no accident that B-S’ marketing showcases its corporate philanthropy rather than its sales and pricing practices. Secure the Future not only gives B-S a leg up as it faces a PR disaster regarding its shameless efforts to prop up its policy of resisting drug discounts to African nations; the millions spent in this campaign earn the company tax deductions. Cutting the prices of AIDS drugs will cut into profit margins, the worst thing a major corporation can do in the eyes of Wall Street and shareholders. So really, aside from hypocrisy and self-interest its a win-win situation all around.
I couldn’t bring you the company’s full-page ad, but I found the next best thing: the Secure the Future website. Here’s a screenshot of the main page:
For its shameless attempt to appropriate the suffering of AIDS victims, Bristol-Myers enters the Corporate Hall of Shame.
Bristol-Myers is NOT a philanthropic organization, nor should it be forced to act like one. The value that pharmaceutical companies provide to society is that they create the drugs and do the research and the clinical studies, etc etc. I’m not going to defend their pricing schemes. But I’m not going to demonize a business for having the gall to make a profit on the enormously valuable products that it develops.
Richard Silverstein says
Glenn: I don’t expect any company to make products & give them away. But we’re not talking here about a small, impoverished company or industry that’d go bankrupt if it treated African’s AIDS sufferers decently. We’re talking about companies producing billions or dollars in annual profits who are willing to watch millions of Africans die because they cannot afford the astronomical (in African terms) prices of these drugs.
B-S’ response in creating this marketing gimmick is telling. They think they can give away $10 or 20 million in African philanthropy & still maintain their predatory pricing for the vast majority of AIDS victims. The philanthropic venture is a pressure valve that relieves pressure whenever someone like me attacks their pricing policies. They can always point to how nice they are to these poor Africans.
I think you’re seeing this too much from the eyes of the B-S types & not enough from the eyes of AIDS victims.
Glenn Halpern says
You say that B-S (nice initials, he he) is not a small company and makes billions, but then you acknowledge that there are millions that need to be treated – that is no small task and not one that should be forced on a for-profit corporation. Maybe they should (and I’m sure they could) donate more, but it is not the responsibility of the corporation to be the savior (dare I invoke Milton Friedman, I did get that business school degree). What about the governments, the humanitarian organizations and all those generous rich people like Soros, Gates etc. Why don’t they pay more?
Let me make a silly analogy. Doctors provide an invaluable service for the community. They perform a special duty which no ordinary fellow can do. But they charge for their services. They charge a lot. They spend their 20’s (and early 30’s) and their money on an education, so it should be understandable that they rake in some cash. Now, they may occasionally put in time at a clinic and give some free medical service.
But they are not required. And they are certainly not forced to provide regular medical services for people without insurance or Medicare. It’s a terrible tragedy that hundreds of thousands of people in this country miss out on medicine and suffer for it. But we don’t blame the doctors for this, we blame the system, or the government. To me, that is the way it should be.
And no, I don’t blame B-S for having a public relations campaign. Every major company has PR campaigns. My stupid company (ING) sponsors the Tour De France and the NYC marathon. I would be MUCH HAPPIER if they dedicated that money to AIDS charities. Do you catch my drift?
Yoe say: I think you’re seeing this too much from the eyes of the B-S types & not enough from the eyes of AIDS victims.
I say: I know some of the B-S types and they are good people. They take pride in their work and hope to develop effective treatments for all the terrible ailments. For those AIDS victims, I hope they gain access to the available treatments, WHICH WOULD NOT EXIST IF IT WERE NOT FOR THE B-S TYPES.
Richard Silverstein says
Glenn: This pandemic is NOT something that can be resolved by any amount of philanthropy whether from B-S or Bill Gates or anyone else. It requires that ALL pharmaceutical companies agree to lower their prices on all of these drugs in Africa until the crisis is resolved. I don’t expect them to lower their prices forever. Just until this hellish catastrophe is over.
Your argument that the crisis could be solved by more philanthropy, while laudable & well-intentioned ignores the reality of what is now happening in Africa. In some countries, half or more of the entire population is infected! Philanthropy can help with this, but it certainly cannot address the entirety of the problem.
Your argument also reminds me of the Republican anti-big government position on federal spending for social issues. After cutting billions that formerly went for welfare, Medicare, etc. Bush & his buddies trumpeted their Religious Initiative whose main tenet was that increased private and church philanthropy would take the place of the former government funding. This is a fundamentally false and misleading argument. If the government was spending $100 billion on these programs before cutting them (I’m just throwing out a number for the sake of argument) do you believe that private and church philanthropy can take the place of this? Of course not, not even close. So what the Republicans are really saying is that we want to use philanthropy as a substitute (& a very poor one at that) for what is really needed–federal funding.
You say that you hope that African AIDS sufferers gain access to pharmaceutical treatment. Well, the road to Hell is paved with good hope and intentions. How many Africans actually WILL get help? Very, very few. The world must not stand idly by while tens of millions die from this. Worse than a terrible tragedy, it would be a crime. If not a legal crime, then a moral one. Saying we hope they will get help is far from being enough. All of us, and the pharmaceutical companies (who have benefited from the gluttonous prices they are charging us for their products) have a duty to respond. And a marketing campaign is not a serious response.
Your doctor analogy, while interesting is not entirely relevant. Pharmaceutical companies and their anti AIDS drugs mean the difference between life and death for these victims. Without the drugs, these people are dead plain and simple. A doctor who greedily refuses to give anything back to a society which has heavily subsidized his medical education & the institutions who educated him or her does not cause the death of 40 million people. While a group of pharmaceutical companies who refuse to reduce their prices & make the drugs available on a wide scale are signing a death sentence for them. There’s a big difference between doctors & the pharma companies.