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Fund Studies, Not Lanyards: Rethinking Corporate Participation at IAC

Posted by Sunny Bjerk , July 30, 2012

Fund Studies, Not Lanyards: Rethinking Corporate Participation at IAC

Courtesy of AIDS Heathcare Foundation’s Flickr page.

During the International AIDS Conference last week, protestors staged a “die-in” against Gilead Sciences—manufacturer of the HIV/AIDS medication Truvada—holding signs stating, Truvada Pricing is Murder, and_ Gilead: Greed Destroys Access to Care_, among many others. The protest was a very loud and very visible criticism of the pharmaceutical giant, particularly the difference that Truvada costs overseas and in the U.S.—$500 versus $11,000 respectively—as well the luxurious compensation of its CEO, John C. Martin.

This protest demonstrates two very important things. One, that AIDS activism is still very much alive, much to the fear of some; and two, that the International AIDS Conference, its attendees, and its sponsors, have a very complicated relationship.

The IAC is a big moneymaker. Big, like twice the gross domestic product of some countries big. According to the International AIDS Society’s webpage, the 2014 conference is projected to generate a whopping $84 million dollars in revenue, suggesting that the revenue raised from 2012 is in the same ballpark, minus inflation. And a huge chunk of this revenue is generated from the conference’s sponsors, which serves as an invaluable source of visibility for companies and organizations, potentially reaching upwards of 30,000 captivated audience members for over six days (and don’t even get me started on the cost of bottled water at Washington Convention Centre).

This year, a number of pharmaceutical companies chose to sponsor the conference at the highest level, including: Abbott Virology, Merck, Gilead, and of course, Bristol Myers-Squibb, whose name was printed—double-sided no less—on all of the lanyards attached to every single conference badge at the cost of $28,000. But this sponsorship upset a number of conference attendees and making many of us wonder: how much of the IAC is dedicated to corporate revenue and branding, and how much of the IAC is dedicated to truly ending AIDS?

I don’t want to belabor the point, but the IAC makes almost all areas of the conference available for purchase, including pens, bottled water, and even its volunteer t-shirts. Chevron, among others, paid $14,000 to have their logo printed on this year’s IAC t-shirts, presumably buying into this selling pitch:

Highly visible, the volunteers help in all areas of the conference (e.g., session rooms, media centre, speaker centre, etc) and provide delegates with assistance throughout the conference (e.g., registration area, traffic flow, entrance control, general assistance, etc.). The name and logo of the sponsor will be featured on volunteers’ t-shirts, ensuring a wide exposure for the sponsor.

If you’re a marketer, you might think that Chevron’s decision to plaster their logo on 2,000 yellow t-shirts was a hell of a win for the company, or that having “Bristol Myers-Squibb” printed on conference lanyards was a smooth move.

But you know what, aside from myself, I have yet to see or hear of another writer criticizing or even commenting on the branded lanyards or the other mind-boggling areas that were for sale at the IAC. Is it because of all of the Marxism I had to read as an undergrad? Maybe. Or maybe it’s because no one noticed and that this brand placement didn’t have its intended affect.

So I have some words of advice for Chevron, Merck, and Bristol Myers-Squibb. Want some good brand recognition or logo placement? Instead of dropping $14,000 on t-shirts, help fund a study about the rates of transmission among MSM in Haiti. Or instead of spending nearly $30,000 on having your name on a conference lanyard, how about paving the way for an open dialogue between U.S. pharmaceutical companies and those on the ADAP waiting list and the concrete steps each side can take in order to move the production of generic med manufacturing in the U.S.

Will some folks bristle at big oil and big pharma sponsoring these studies? Absolutely. But will people actually take notice and start talking about, Hey, did you hear what #Chevron sponsored the other day? Absolutely.

It’s your call, Chevron, Merck, and Bristol Myers-Squibb. Dazzle us in 2014.

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