You’ll never meet an ugly drug rep

Five years ago, The New York Times ran this piece on the number of cheerleaders who become drug saleswomen. It’s a great example of how even the most sophisticated businesses in the world rely on the most primal human tendencies to succeed.

For the drug companies, the calculation ran like this: each blockbuster drug now costs so much, we need to squeeze every last penny out those we have, even if it means getting doctors to prescribe them for conditions they were never intended to treat. How do you persuade the mostly male doctors? Send in gorgeous, peppy young saleswomen, preferably ex-cheerleaders to flirt them into ordering more drugs.

This was a big reason behind today’s revelation of the £2.2 billion charge taken by GlaxoSmithKline to settle product liability lawsuits and regulatory fines linked to sales practices. Last year Pfizer paid $2.3 billion to settle state and federal charges also linked to aggressive marketing. Other standard ploys used to persuade doctors to over-prescribe certain drugs included offering dinners and holidays.

There is a lot of pseudo-science out there about the sales process. But sometimes, it really does come down to bored customer + attractive salesperson = sale. Even when what’s at stake is patients’ health.