Thursday, February 15, 2024

What Pfizer’s Super Bowl Ad Should Have Been

There’s been a lot of discussion around Pfizer’s decision to spend an estimated $14–21 million on its “Here’s to Science” Super Bowl ad. I’d like to boil it down to two questions: Why did they do it? Did it accomplish their objective?

For the question of ‘why,’ STAT News reported, “The ad comes as the pharmaceutical company celebrates its 175th anniversary and looks to promote a dynamic, optimistic message about Pfizer’s future to the general public, investors, and the company’s own employees.”

Pfizer spokesperson Faith Salamon said the goal was to “celebrate science in a fun, engaging and uplifting way.”

Unfortunately, The New York Times didn’t buy it. In their review of Super Bowl ads, the NYT placed Pfizer in the category entitled, “The Flagrant Missteps: Famous people and millions of dollars that together can’t quite amount to mediocrity.”

Flagrant sounds too intentional. This is a case of missed opportunity (except for the soundtrack — who doesn’t love Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”?).

I had an array of reactions, but these were the key moments:

Most horrifying: A corpse comes alive, with his arm dissected from shoulder to fingertips — depicted in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp — looking like he wants to get off the table.

Most confusing: The inclusion of a tartigrade (“little water bear,” an eight-legged creature about one millimeter long) swimming across the screen.

Most inspiring: The positive message sent by highlighting four women scientists, one of color.

Most overreaching: It seems the ad makers knew most of the public couldn’t differentiate between famous scientists or science disciplines, so they threw some recognizable names out there. The relevance was questionable since half of the science luminaries depicted were mathematicians and physicists, yet Pfizer is a healthcare company.

Most jarring: The words “Here’s to the next fight” come across the screen but don’t connect to anything seen previously. The next words are “” followed by some video of a little girl being applauded for what must have been successfully completing treatment. (A lovely moment, to be sure.)

The Let’s Outdo Cancer website details Pfizer’s research pipeline and product portfolio. There’s also important information on how to participate in a cancer clinical trial and a partnership with the American Cancer Society to “improve health outcomes in medically underrepresented communities across the United States.”

There is no doubt that we’re benefiting from the discoveries made by Pfizer and their partners. We’re living better, healthier lives. There’s a ton of good information on the site but it doesn’t have much to do with “Here’s to Science.”

A one-off effort like a Super Bowl ad can help achieve specific objectives but, in my experience, plans need follow-through and messages require repetition. I don’t know their actual plan, of course. I’m not an insider. But if Pfizer seeks to promote a positive message and increase engagement with stakeholders, I have a suggestion. They have an enormous opportunity to create a more receptive public if they work towards increasing trust in science.

Engaging a wide array of audiences on the value of science is critically important to elevate trust. Dr. Marijn Dekkers, former CEO of Bayer and former Chairman of Unilever, pointed out at a financial conference several years back that “even the most outstanding ideas and scientific breakthroughs have no chance if people do not accept, appreciate and support them. All too often, people are afraid of — or uneasy about — new ideas, inventions, processes or products.”

The public acceptance of innovation is clearly at risk according to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual trust and credibility survey. It found that respondents believe innovation is poorly managed by nearly a two-to-one margin. And while technology as a whole is trusted by 76 percent, gene-based medicine is only at 50 percent. (It gets worse. GMO foods are trusted only by 32 percent.)

The issue goes far beyond industry interests. Poor science literacy can eat at the core of our democracy. Professor Jon D. Miller, now at the University of Michigan, warned us nearly 20 years ago that “people’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.” He continued that for many issues affecting society, “if you don’t know a little science [it’s] hard to follow these debates. A lot of journalism [will] not make sense to you.”

So, here we are. The current state is that science and scientists are under attack. Facts are being denied and misinformation proliferates. Critical thinking is being abandoned. Education is underfunded. Science is politicized and weaponized. It must stop.

It’s not a problem that can be addressed by a one-year budget cycle or even a five or ten-year plan. It will take a generational blueprint that needs to be comprehensive, coordinated, and well capitalized to see a return on the investment.

Getting the message out is only one side of the coin, though. Ensuring the message is received requires the same sort of effort. The Super Bowl ad should have been the kick-off of an ongoing effort to engage, inform, and educate the public about science and scientific principles. But it’s not too late. We need conveners. Partners need to be assembled and resources gathered. Objectives must be determined and milestones assigned.

Let’s get started.

Between posts I invite you to follow me on Threads @pauloestreicher.

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