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Pharma Firms Use Cheerleaders to Sell Drugs
12/5/2005
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Sex is the secret weapon in drug companies’ bruising battles to best their competitors

by Craig Weatherby



Last Monday, the New York Times published an eye-opening report on the lengths to which pharmaceutical firms will go to sell their wares to doctors.


It seems that top college cheerleaders—almost all women—are also top prospects when big pharma firms seek budding Willy Lomans to push their patented pills to physicians.


As the Times reported, “Anyone who has seen the parade of sales representatives through a doctor's waiting room has probably noticed that they are frequently female and invariably good looking. Less recognized is the fact that a good many are recruited from the cheerleading ranks.  Known for their athleticism, postage-stamp skirts and persuasive enthusiasm, cheerleaders have many qualities the drug industry looks for in its sales force.”


In addition to outgoing personalities and abundant energy, sexual allure is the obvious sales edge that female cheerleaders offer. Dr. Thomas Carli of the University of Michigan has led efforts to limit drug reps’ access hospital hallways. As he told the Times, "There's a saying that you'll never meet an ugly drug rep."


No one tracks the numbers of drug representatives who are former or current cheerleaders, but drug companies’ demand for them prompted the founding of an employment firm called Spirited Sales Leaders that maintains a list of thousands of cheerleaders.


A West Virginia surgeon and lawmaker introduced a bill to require drug sales reps to hold science degrees. The bill was rejected, but prompted passage of a regulation forcing disclosure of companies’ minimum hiring requirements.


According to the Times’ article, an informal survey conducted by Dr. James J. McCague of Pittsburgh found that 12 of 13 medical saleswomen said they had been sexually harassed by physicians.


And, in a federal lawsuit against Novartis, one saleswoman asserts that she was pushed to exploit a personal relationship with a doctor to increase sales.


Insider movie exposes one reps’ reality

Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau is a former sales rep for pharma firms, who wrote, directed, and produced the upcoming black comedy movie title “Side Effects,” a scene from which is shown at right.


Slattery-Moschkau sold drugs for Bristol-Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson, until she found it increasingly difficult to, as she told the British Medical Journal, "look myself in the mirror," and left her job after 10 years in the industry.


The lead character in her film suffers pangs of conscience about some of the promotional techniques she’s pushed to employ, and begins to tell doctors the truth about drug side effects.


As the cheerleader story indicates, one common corporate tatctics to hire attractive female salespeople. Slattery-Moschkau told the British Medical Journal that the tactics employed by the industry in its pursuit of profits sometimes came at the expense of patients' lives.


And sales experience counts much more than a relevant science background, as Slattery-Moschkau discovered when her experience selling cell phones and her political science degree got her started in a career "educating” doctors. Her only science background was a course in geology.



Sources

  • Saul S. Gimme an Rx! Cheerleaders Pep Up Drug Sales. The New York Times, November 28, 2005.  Accessed online November 30, 2005 at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/28/business/28cheer.html
  • Lenzer J. Confessions of a drug rep. studentBMJ 2005;13:177-220 May ISSN 0966-6494. Accessed online December 3, 2005 at www.studentbmj.com/ issues/05/05/reviews/217.php

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