Ad regulator attempts to decontaminate toxic MMR/autism controversy

August 8, 2012

You have to feel a little sorry for Guy Parker and his team at the Advertising Standards Authority. Every now and then an issue comes along with a screaming public health warning blazoned all over it – “Highly Toxic, On No Account Handle.” Yet they manfully don the protective gear and attempt to decontaminate it for the public good just the same. Knowing, all the while, that there are no heroes in these situations, only casualties.

MMR – the triple measles, mumps and Rubella (German measles) vaccination – is just such an issue. Babyjabs is an organisation, backed by the medical prestige of one Dr Richard Halvorsen, that firmly believes some of the unpleasant side-effects of the triple-jab – which include the possibility of autism – can be mitigated by the simple expedient of administering all three vaccinations individually. They don’t say single vaccinations have no side effects – they do say the side effects are less likely to occur. For instance: “It is very likely that the MMR causes autism and bowel disease in some children. It is probable that the single measles vaccine can also do this, but, if so, much more rarely than the MMR.”

Many parents persist in agreeing with these conclusions, albeit on a common-sense, non-scientific level. Much to the consternation of the UK medical establishment and the National Health Service, which for years have been attempting to stamp out a heresy that, by implication, calls into question the authority of eminent doctors, not to mention the sacrosanct commercial right of Big Pharma (in this case the saintly GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur MSD) to flog billions of pounds-worth of the triple vaccine to the NHS.

The ASA has had to step in and slap down Babyjabs after a single anonymous complainant (possibly a Witchfinder General at the General Medical Council, but we cannot be certain) called into question the veracity of website claims about MMR’s pernicious effects.

MMR has been fraught with controversy since Dr Andrew Wakefield’s, er, seminal research into the subject surfaced in 1998. Wakefield purported to have found a definite link between the triple vaccine and the growing incidence of autism. So influential was the backwash from his research that, at one time, uptake of the MMR jab was 60% down in some parts of the country. But it was later demonstrated that Wakefield had “fixed” the results of his research and that he had, in any case, an underlying agenda at odds with dispassionate scientific inquiry. He was struck off the medical register and now quietly plies his trade in other realms.

Wakefield is not the only dangerous heretic, however. Robert F Kennedy Jnr, son of the late assassinated presidential candidate no less, has also come back into the fray with a refreshed set of allegations suggesting that a vaccine preservative containing mercury (thimerosal by name), plus the unseasonable number of vaccines pumped into kids before they are two, may have something to do with the autism syndrome. His argument depends, to some extent, upon the perceived relative absence of autism within the Pennsylvania Amish community – which is proverbially hostile to the whole idea of vaccination programmes.

It remains to be seen whether Wakefield will be viewed by future generations as one of the greatest medical fraudsters of all time, or as some kind of Christopher Columbus figure – a historic pioneer who found the wrong continent with the aid of a faulty compass.


GlaxoSmithKline marketing scandal makes Barclays’ woes look like small change

July 4, 2012

This week, the US Justice Department fined a well-known multinational $3bn (£2bn) for serial corporate malpractice. And, in the manner of a suspended criminal sentence, it imposed on company managers – up to its chief executive – stringent measures for slashing their pay and bonuses should further illegal activity come to light.

Another bank getting the Barclays treatment? No. This is one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, getting its comeuppance for inappropriately marketing a slew of prescription drugs.

The only reason we haven’t heard more is because Barclays’ former chief executive Bob Diamond is hogging the limelight, for which Glaxo CEO Sir Andrew Witty must be profoundly grateful. All Diamond and his colleagues did was to manipulate the money markets. What GSK has done, by contrast, is gamble with human lives – including children’s lives – in the hope of making a fast buck for its shareholders and management team.

It’s a grubby tale, stretching back over a decade, which involves bribery, treating, corporate bullying and wilful suppression of the truth. And an interesting definition of what appears to have passed for trade marketing in Big Pharma.

Glaxo admitted corporate misconduct over the mis-selling of three drugs, the anti-depressants Paxil (known over here as Seroxat) and Wellbutrin, plus the asthma drug Advair.

Most egregious, perhaps, was the “repositioning” of Paxil – once GSK’s best-selling drug – as safe for adolescents, when clinical trials had failed to establish any such premise. No expense was spared in covering up this inconvenient truth.

“Luxurious conferences were organised in exotic climes where paid-for scientific speakers hyped up the conclusions of dubious academic papers,” The Independent tells us.”GSK held 8 ‘Paxil forum’ events in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and California, where hundreds of doctors were treated to snorkelling, horse-riding, sailing, deep-sea fishing, balloon rides and spa treatments, and given an ‘honorarium’ of $750 in cash. The company knew it was worth paying for these kinds of boondoggles; it monitored the doctors who attended and found they significantly increased prescriptions of Paxil in the months after the event.” Note and appreciate the scientific attention to the analysis of marketing data.

And there is more. GSK published an article in a medical journal that mis-stated the drug was safe for use by children, despite being asked several times by the journal’s publisher to change the wording. (Why was the publisher not more insistent? Probably because it feared going out of business. It’s a small world, Big Pharma.) Copies of the offending article were then handed to sales reps, to help badger GPs into seeing GSK’s point of view.

In the case of Wellbutrin, GSK paid a well-known medical media star of the time, Dr Drew Pinsky, who hosted a then-popular radio show, nearly $300,000 to say nice things about it – like it could give you 60 orgasms in one night. Funnily enough, the good Doc failed to disclose to his audience, or anyone else for that matter, that he was taking the GSK shilling.

Woe betide you if you showed any scruples, however: when a GSK-funded doctor refused to suppress his own misgivings about the safety of the drug, GSK removed his funding.

What emerges about the marketing of the asthma drug Advair is its crassness. It was launched to sales reps in Las Vegas using images of slot machines – to emphasise the money they could make from bonuses. At the event, Jean-Pierre Garnier (pictured), the CEO on whose watch all these shenanigans went on, told them: “What is the number one reason why you should love to be a GSK rep? Advair’s bonus plan. Yeah!”

It’s reassuring to know our life is in their hands, isn’t it? Makes Barclays Bob look a bit of a saint by comparison.


The agency kickback scandal you couldn’t make up if you tried

November 10, 2010

One staple theme yet to make its appearance in our favourite TV soap, Mad Men, is the celebrated agency kickback. No doubt it will in time.

But why wait for the soap when you can have the real thing, authentically reproduced in verbatim court transcripts?

I refer here to a protracted States-side legal case which Grey Advertising Group has just lost after attempting to suppress the evidence for a decade.

And what a very unedifying picture that evidence paints. Internal memos and personal transcripts reveal an agency whose senior executives were steeped to the gills in a conspiracy to deny major clients Procter & Gamble, Mars, British American Tobacco (BAT) and SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)) about £4m that was rightfully theirs.

Before going any further, you’ll appreciate that I have to flag up a legal health warning. All these events took place a long, long time ago – up to 20 years ago in some cases. Almost all the protagonists have now quit the business. And at that time WPP, which now owns Grey, was no more than an expletive uttered by Grey supremo Ed Meyer – who then held the agency lock, stock and barrel – every time he lost an account to JWT or Ogilvy.

Also, I’d like to point out that what follows is a very much abbreviated version of a story recently broken by my fellow blogger Jim Edwards, whose detailed account can be found here.

Now back to the script. The scene is Grey’s London office, then at the top of Great Portland Street, circa 1998. New American ceo, Steve Blamer (left), has just arrived to take over from long-serving managing director Roger Edwards. An increasingly incredulous Blamer is updating himself on the agency’s financial position, with the help of chief financial officer Roy Wilson:

Blamer: P&G is that much?

Wilson: Yep.

Blamer: Jesus… I’m telling you, the reality is you as the financial officer and me as the ceo and now Roger (presumably Edwards) could be sued. I mean, we’re cheating and stealing from our clients. That is the truth.

And later…

Blamer: I believe we should return these discounts. I’m not going to, I can’t make that decision unilaterally…If those guys (senior management, in New York) say that we’re not going to do it, and we can keep the discounts… then I say, fuck it that’s crazy, send me a note, I want a ‘Get out of jail free’ card.

Of course, handing back the discounts – mostly from print contracts – would open a whole new can of worms; as Edwards was quick to explain, citing one client in particular.

Edwards: Mars is such a vitriolic client, that if they did catch you doing that they would probably punish you very severely. They would take you back years, take a brand off you or something like that.

Not surprisingly, everyone decided to stay mum. But they did change the terms of business, so that future discounts would be rebated to the client.

You might ask yourself why clients were not better informed about what was going on. After all, it was their money. The answer seems to be Three Wise Monkeys syndrome. Indeed, even those party to what was going on within the agency were baffled by clients’ seeming ignorance, or indifference.

Blamer: Have they [clients] ever discovered that in an audit?

Wilson: No.

Blamer: And why is that?

Wilson: …I mean to be honest one has to be a bit surprised that none of them have ever specifically, eyeball to eyeball… and then asked the question, since it’s a clause in every one of our contracts, but…

In view of this circle of deceit and self-deception, it might seem surprising that anything ever came to light. The weak link, indirectly, was Wilson, who rightly feared he might be made a scapegoat and had the conversations taped and transcribed as an insurance policy should he ever get fired. Which he later was.

The case of Grey is, of course, no isolated instance, merely a well documented one. Currently, there is a still-breaking media-buying scandal in China – involving broker kickbacks – which has already claimed the scalps of Vivaki Exchange’s two top China operators. Earlier this year, Aegis Media finally put the so-called Aleksander Ruzicka affair to bed, when it settled €30m on Danone in lieu of unpaid TV advertising rebates. And going back a few years, readers may remember Interpublic’s belatedly generous settlement on clients of media volume discounts, whose non-payment had come to light as a byproduct of the accounting scandal that engulfed the group at the beginning of this decade.


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