Publicis Health under fire for opioid marketing

Agencies make big money from lots of under-the-radar things, healthcare marketing being one. A high margin business too (draw your own conclusions.)

Publicis Health in the US is being sued by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey for designing and deploying “unfair and deceptive marketing schemes” to persuade doctors to prescribe Purdue Pharma opioids to more patients, in higher doses and for longer periods of time.

Publicis Health marketing materials were allegedly used for a number of purposes including training Purdue sales reps, helping place OxyContin (painkiller) ads in electronic medical records and developing strategies to counter the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2016 opioid guidelines. Healey claims Publicis Health was paid $50m between 2010 and 2019.

Publicis says “the lawsuit is completely without basis,” telling Forbes “All of our work was completely lawful. Publicis Health acted solely as an advertising agency. It was not a drug manufacturer, distributor, or consultant. Our role was limited to implementing Purdue’s advertising plan and buying media space. We look forward to a Court determining there is absolutely no legal basis that supports this lawsuit.”

It’s not our job to pre-judge this but “acting solely as an advertising agency” leaves something to the imagination, as my friend George Parker has noted.

We’ve noted before that agencies risk sleepwalking into a legal nightmare as their relentless acquisition of data takes them to places they maybe shouldn’t go.

Epsilon, which Publicis bought for $4.4bn in 2019, had to agree a $150m legal settlement in the US for data breaches. This pre-dated Publicis but these things tend not to go away. The likes of Google and Facebook can take these financial hits (although not the reputational damage.) Can agency groups afford either?

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

2 comments

  1. Avatar

    Was Publicis Health’s advertising for Oxycontin effective?
    Defending itself against charges that its advertising contributed to the opioid crisis in Massachusetts, the agency says “our role was limited to implementing Purdue’s advertising plan.”
    Wow! We were just following orders! — a pure admission that the agency was just a supplier, not a partner.
    Will they also admit that their marketing programs were ineffective?
    This lawsuit has serious implications for Publicis Groupe and the rest of the industry.

  2. Avatar

    Michael… As I posted on AdScam… And as you also point out… Publicis claims… “All of our work was completely lawful. Publicis Health acted solely as an advertising agency. It was not a drug manufacturer, distributor, or consultant. Our role was limited to implementing Purdue’s advertising plan and buying media space.” Which in actuality, supports the statement David Ogilvy once said to me many, many years ago… “Advertising is all about selling.” Therefore… Publicis… Guilty as charged.

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