Rodney DangerfieldThe late, great comedian Rodney Dangerfield made the phrase “I get no respect” his trademark. Some pharmaceutical executives these days have embraced the Rodney Dangerfield shtick. Henry McKinnell, Pfizer’s CEO, for example, once commented that “we cure heart attacks and strokes and cancer, but we can’t get any respect.” (See “Can’t Get Any Respect!“)

I got a hearty laugh out of that one! I did not know that heart attacks, strokes, and cancer were cured! Where was I when this was happening? Imagine if such claims were made in Lipitor ads!

Never mind, though, I know what he means. McKinnell was lamenting the “sinking standing” of pharmaceutical companies in opinion polls.

Recently, however, pharmaceutical executives are pointing to polls, such as the Harris Poll, which purport to show the industry is becoming less unpopular (see “Pharma Industry Less Unpopular“). Some executives are even attributing the reversal to their own inspired PR campaigns (e.g. Merck and GSK).

The Harris Poll asked respondents if they think the pharmaceutical industry is generally doing a good job serving their customers. The percent who said “Yes” has risen the last 2 years.

Yet, another Harris Poll — the Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Health Care Poll — paints a different picture. This poll asked a different question; namely, How much do respondents trust the pharmaceutical industry to do the right thing for the health care of those whom they have a responsibility for. The percent answering “Yes” to that question is at an all-time low of 9%.

[This number was quoted to me by Peter Rost, an industry critic, in an interview I did for the May issue of Pharma Marketing News. I have not been able to find that data myself, but I did find the data from the 2004 poll, which showed that only 14% of respondents trust the pharma industry “a lot.”]

In other words, consumers think the industry is doing a good job, but that it can’t be trusted!

Doing a good job means delivering products that work and at competitive prices without gouging the public. Until the implementation of Medicare Part D consumers were not so impressed with pharma’’s handling of the price part of the job. This, I believe is why the industry’’s job rating is up right now — Part D has relieved some of the pressure on pharma regarding the cost of Rx drugs.

Doing a good job is also tangible — it can be measured in terms of sales and profits, which are at record levels for the pharmaceutical industry. You can’t argue with success.

Trust, however, is intangible and is seemingly not linked to sales and profits. So why worry about it? As long as the bottom line is healthy, not many pharmaceutical executives may worry about it. But I think this is a mistake.

The less consumers trust the drug industry to do the right thing, the more pressure there will be to increase regulations and pass laws impeding the industry’s business practices. We are already seeing this happen. A third Harris Poll (November. 2005) reveals that “Majorities of U.S. Adults Think Oil Companies and Pharmaceuticals Should Be More Regulated.” In 2005, 51% of respondents thought the industry should be more regulated. Pharma is second behind oil companies, which 55% of respondents thought should be more regulated.

Eventually, this will affect the bottom line.

It does not serve the industry well to focus always on the good news (e.g., Harris Poll #1) while downplaying the bad (e.g., Harris Poll #2 and #3).

[P.S. Aside from McKinnell’s “I get no respect” joke, perhaps there are others out there that readers of this blog would like to make up? Imagine the CEO of a Big Pharma company doing standup at the LA Improv on open mike night. Something like: “We pharma people get no respect. Why just the other day I was talking to my stock broker and he told me to sell my company stock short!” or “I get no respect. On Mother’s Day I gave my mom flowers while visiting her at the nursing home. She asked for a lifetime supply of Boniva instead!” That kind of thing, only funnier!]