What Beliefs Drive Negative Coverage of ‘Big Pharma’?

Tuesday, August 1 2017 Reinhard Cate Content Marketing Manager Categories:

When President Trump lashed out against pharmaceutical companies in March, the industry’s stock took a nose dive. The President’s tweets drove damaging headlines for one news cycle and the market recovered, but the pharmaceutical companies have continued to find themselves in controversy after controversy.


What beliefs and ideas have driven the stories and public perception about the industry? Using the Protagonist platform, we analyzed the underlying narratives present in U.S. news coverage over the past year to take an empirical look at the public perception of “Big Pharma” to really see what impacts public perception.


Digging through the Data

To process the hundreds of thousands of stories published about the pharmaceutical industry since last summer, we lean on a mixture of natural language processing (NLP), and computational linguistics to build out a representative data set and classify each piece of content with a machine learning model. As a result, a breakdown of content segmented by the underlying narrative each individual story reflects is produced.


Together with the Protagonist platform, narrative analytics allows us to surface and quantify the beliefs and ideas behind millions of pieces of content, something social listening, focus groups, and surveys are incapable of doing. The result is straight-forward and in this case unfortunately for the pharmaceutical industry, tells a largely negative story.


Behind the Analysis

The impact of each narrative or story is weighted by its volume and social engagement. Engagement is where we treat the likes, comments, and shares of an article as a proxy for audience resonance, and ultimately indicates what stories have a higher impact. The more viral the story, the more the content resonates with its audience, the higher the impact.


The Narrative Landscape

The largest impact narrative in our sample is Profit over Patients. This is a largely negative story where the pharmaceutical companies are a villain focused only on profits and ignore the needs of those who rely on their drugs. Driving 55% of the conversation over the last year, it paints pharmaceutical companies in a seriously harmful light. Issues of price fixing, attempts to sideline cheaper generic drugs, and the peddling of influence of doctors are topics at the forefront in this narrative.


However, the landscape wasn’t a complete loss for the industry. The second largest narrative, Supporting Critical Research, told a story of pharmaceutical companies as heroes, providing needed support and funding to treat the world’s worst diseases and ailments. This narrative drove 36% of conversation in our sample and included stories about research partnerships with the World Health Organization and universities, a refusal from pharmaceutical companies to provide drugs used in lethal injections, and the subsidization of crucial treatment drugs by the industry for low income Americans.


Supporting Critical Research was driven by a host of non-traditional media sources from individual blogs like “Scary Mommy”, to less known media outlets such as “Big News Network”. Content also often focused on combating the narrative pushed by ant-vaccine proponents found in the negative narrative Big Pharma Conspiracy.


The Role of Influencers

What’s also incredibly interesting is that the heroes challenging “big pharma” and the “villains” associated with it are a host of characters of varying political views, with some featuring prominently in positive and negative narratives about the industry. We pinpointed the key influencers, (politicians, pundits, and experts) featured in coverage over the past year and calculated the impact they drove and where they fit in the narratives.



Despite their obvious political differences, President Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders stand side by side condemning the “price fixing” from the industry. The President is the highest impact influencer driving 11% of the conversation in our sample followed by Sanders at 6%. Unsurprisingly, Martin Shkreli the self-proclaimed “pharma bro” responsible for the notorious price hike of a critical cancer treating drug, was the poster boy villain associated with pharmaceutical companies and drove 5% of impact.


Lastly, Scott Gottlieb who was nominated by President Trump to become the new FDA Commissioner was highly associated with the narrative Revolving Door. This narrative argued that the people tasked at the FDA with regulating pharmaceutical companies were more often than not, former industry executives, had received funding from the industry, or were openly friendly with it. While Gottlieb’s impact to the network as a whole was small at 0.5%, relative to Revolving Door, Gottlieb is responsible for 23% of that narrative’s overall impact.


Company Signature Across Narratives

The last bit of analysis focuses on the signature of key pharmaceutical companies across the narratives. Simply put, when a narrative is present in a published story, how often does the company also show up in the text. This is a critical barometer for judging brand association or reputation. We took a look at the presence of Pfizer, Abbot, Bayer, and Merck across the sample.



Two Sides to Every Story

This analysis also gives us is insight on the success and failure of the industry’s ability to push back against negative public perceptions and coverage. For instance, the narrative Big Pharma isn’t the Problem points the blame for high prescription drug prices at pharmacy chains, pharmacy benefit managers, and even health insurance companies.


Much of the content in this narrative originates from industry sources and acts as a counter to allegations that the responsibility for high drug prices falls squarely on its shoulders. However, the impact of the narrative is tiny driving only 0.5% of impact, yet we still see major pharmaceutical companies having a significant presence in it, with Abbot appearing 63% of the time, followed by Merck at 26%, and Pfizer at 7%.


On the other hand, in Supporting Critical Research, the sole positive narrative in the landscape, had second highest impact score in the sample and in terms of audience resonance a much clearer sign of acceptance. Bayer is highly present in this narrative showing up 25% of the time, Merck at 24%, Pfizer at 2%, and Abbot at 1%. Brand signature in this narrative is a crucial test of a company’s brand resilience in an incredibly negative narrative landscape.


Blame on the other hand touches all four companies, with each of the four companies having significant presence across the negative narratives, Merck in particular is associated 36% of the time in Profit over Patients, a seven-times increase from its nearest competitor, while Bayer has the highest presence by far at 63% association with Big Pharma Conspiracy, finding its brand associated with stories alleging that the industry is deploying vaccines to sicken children and control governments. One thing is certain, the spectrum of beliefs negative and positive range wildly and vary heavily by source.


Nonetheless, while public perceptions of pharmaceutical companies look grim, there is beacon of hope for the industry. Narratives are a driving force behind the reputation of brands, issues, and individuals. The lesson here for the pharmaceutical industry or any brand in crisis: pointing fingers doesn’t sit well with your audience, instead change the narrative and focus on the positive you already do to impact perception and take control of your own narrative.