When we heard this ‘Marketplace’ story about the economics of a box-office flop, we couldn’t help but think it all sounded a bit familiar.  Referring to the current kids film Speedracer, ‘Marketplace’ anchor Kai Ryssdal reported that, “Warner Bros. put $100 million into making it, then another $150 million marketing it. Total box office so far? Less than $30 million.”

Hmm.  Sounds like a problem the pharmaceutical industry has had too, of late. Though the numbers differ, it’s widely believed that pharma marketing budgets outstripped R&D spending awhile ago, resulting in a rash of combination and me-too blockbuster drugs that cost much less to invent than they do to push.

But back to the Speedracer fable. A big chunk of that $150M marketing budget? Happy meal toys. We know that pharma already has that routine in the bag. According to the ‘Marketplace’ story, Warner Bros. spent $80 million in ‘promotional partnerships’ for the film. Those, too, are a core strategy of pharma’s marketing arm – drugmakers sponsor everything from celebrity golf tournaments to 10K races, and underwrite medical society annual meetings and patient advocacy groups.  Payments to doctors could even count as promotional partnerships at the individual level.

A consumer retail consultant on the show said that hope was not lost for the Speedracer campaign – foreign markets and DVD sales might help recoup some of the loss.  For me-too and new drugs that don’t perform on the market as projected, there are always foreign markets – for instance, the ceilingless seller’s market for anti-retrovirals in emerging nations, or the DVD release-like molecular tweaks companies make to extend patent exclusivity.

Though the show ended with a clever line tugged from the Speedracer script – “It’s getting ugly out there” –’Marketplace’ didn’t have to say that maybe one of the lessons for the studio was to reallocate funds next time toward making a better movie, one that would sell itself once the lights went down.