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Hot Drug Time Machine: Now We Know When Big Pharma's Rep Went Bad

Big Pharma executives complain frequently about how their reputation is maligned -- as in, this is an industry that cures the sick, yet is saddled with a nickname derived from "Big Tobacco." But a new search tool from Google that measures how frequently certain words appeared in books dating back to the 1800s shows that the drug biz should be grateful -- the moniker "Big Pharma" wasn't widely used in the lexicon until about 1994.

Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Big Food were all in use years before the Big Pharma nickname became cultural currency, Google's "Books Ngram Viewer" shows. The search tool measures how often a word appears in Google's database of 15 million scanned books. Google intends to to scan all 130 million existing books by the end of the decade.

Here's the chart for Big Pharma (click to enlarge):

Clearly, the derogatory term for the pharmaceutical industry took off at about the same time as President Clinton was attempting and failing to reform healthcare. That battle was fought largely by insurers and HMOs; the drug business took more of a back seat. It did, however, oppose the Democrats' plan to extend healthcare coverage to the uninsured and the price the business appears to have paid for that victory was the "Big Pharma" brand.

For comparison, Big Oil first appears in the 1950s and peaks in the 1980s following the gas crises of 1973 and 1979. (As the search tool only looks at books, memes only show up in it after a delay of months or years.)

Big Food arrived in the 1950s but didn't take off until 2000:

Big Tobacco was born in the late 1940s, shortly after George Seldes' muckraking sheet In Fact reported for the first time that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. Still, the industry went about four more decades before the insult really took hold. It was only after seven tobacco company CEOS swore under oath before Congress in 1994 that "nicotine is not addictive" that Big Tobacco really took hold.

From my recollection, usage of "Big Food" to describe agriculture/packaged goods conglomerates accelerated in the marketing business around 2005 following an article in Ad Age on a report by the Institute of Medicine that concluded food marketing was making children fat. Titled "Tony the Tiger on death row?," it began:

Big Food's status as the new Big Tobacco was underlined this week by a study issued by the Institute of Medicine that paints marketing as the evildoer in the childhood obesity debate, exposes the food industry to costly lawsuits like those that slammed the tobacco business, and will force a reassessment of marketing spending, strategy and messaging.
A Big Food lawyer later told me his clients were livid to be compared to tobacco, and that the comparison had stuck.

The timelines have a lesson for anyone who cares about corporate image and reputation issues. Once a nickname is coined, an industry has a short window in which to reform and avoid being tarred for life. Tobacco nearly achieved that, but then signed its own death warrant in 1994.

Big Pharma went decades with a spotless reputation, but it cannot blame its critics for the nickname -- that appears to be the result of its lobbying over healthcare reform 1993. Might things have turned out differently of the industry had cut a deal with Clinton the way it did with President Obama on the same issue last year? We'll never know.


Image by Flickr user Notions Capital, CC.
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