The symbiosis or parasitism of accepting corporate sponsorship
Recently a colleague brought an internet site to my attention. The purpose of the site, www.nofree lunch.org, is to expose the perceived evils of corporate sponsorship in the human medical field. The members of the organization are taking the stance that one cannot accept even a mere pen from a pharmaceutical company, let alone a golf outing, pheasant hunt, or cruise, without being biased toward the products the company is selling. They go on to point out numerous studies to emphasize their point that medical decisions made by your family physician are being biased by commercial gifts and services. Imagine what they would think if they considered the veterinary model, where veterinarians profit from the direct sale of the product.
Shortly after viewing the information at nofreelunch.org, I was approached by another AASV member who wanted to express to me his disappointment that AASV was certainly not doing its job in keeping the corporate veterinary pharmaceutical companies in line. In fact, it was his opinion that AASV was "in bed" with its corporate sponsors, and therefore AASV could not do its job and warn its members of their evil intentions. Interestingly, as part of my duties as your president, I have been in contact with some of our corporate sponsors to work out details of our next annual meeting in Orlando. I have to admit that they were certainly very pleasant and did not seem to be the least bit evil. It does make me think about the triad relationship between the pharmaceutical company, the veterinarian, and the client, and our obligation as veterinarians to evaluate and correct for potential biases in medical information according to our oath.
Why do pharmaceutical companies spend thousands of dollars to help make our annual meeting a success, and why do we take their money? I am hard pressed to believe that a free pen, stress ball, drinks, or a nice banquet meal is going to change my opinion of a veterinary product I might recommend to my clients. No matter how adamantly I feel about that, however, I know I am fighting a strong tide, as "reciprocation" is documented as one of the six basic tendencies of human behavior that come into play in generating a positive sales response.1 Grocery stores offer free samples, health clubs offer free workouts, and veterinary pharmaceutical companies offer free _______ (meals, pens, hunting trips, etc - you fill in the blank). As Robert B. Cialdini, Regents Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University points out in his book, Influence,2 there may be a subtle price tag, as the gifts psychologically indebt us to reciprocate.
So how do you find the delicate balance between symbiosis and parasitism, assuming there is a middle ground? Let's take the AASV Monday night reception and banquet, for instance. The cost is approximately $63 a person. You may think your $135 annual dues and $200 registration fee cover this, but if we relied on dues and registration money left over after mailing the Journal of Swine Health and Production, paying for office labor and expenses, and all the other costs of trying to keep members current on relevant topics as required, we would be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the banquet or having a pot luck. Members need to realize that the fine professional image we try to uphold at our annual banquet comes with a price tag.
For the most part, I personally believe the current situation can be symbiotic. We ask sponsors to help defray the cost of our meeting, and in turn, they get recognition for their support and opportunity for their technical service representatives to access a great number of influential swine veterinarians at once.
When does it become a parasitic relationship? From the corporate sponsors' standpoint, they need to make an increase in sales or at the very least help satisfy and secure their current position on sales or this arrangement will not continue, because AASV becomes the parasite. Corporate accountants will not allow a continuous outflow of money for support of the AASV annual meeting if there is not some perceived return on investment.
From a member standpoint, if sponsors lead us down the wrong path in terms of client service, by biasing our abilities to make a decision based on science instead of reciprocation, we lose. When sponsors lure members away from the annual meeting by having private meetings with select members during scientific sessions, or private dinners with their "preferred customers" during the annual banquet, the relationship becomes parasitic. It harms the membership and detracts from our mission when influential members are drawn away from the AASV meeting for private enterprise.
Americans have the freedom to choose. You can bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown paper bag to the banquet if you choose to do so. You can also turn down the private dinner (or at least do it at another time) to join our colleagues at the banquet table where we proudly honor our distinguished members, and thank those who have volunteered their time and services throughout the year and those who have helped defray the cost of this meeting by offering their monetary support.
This is a two-way street, of course, and corporate sponsors might decide that they are casting much too broad a net by spending money on the general membership. Just as grocery stores now offer better deals to those who purchase with a membership card, pharmaceutical companies may choose to spend all their time and energy on a small group of influential decision makers and ignore the rest.
I personally hope we can keep the relationship symbiotic, as parasitology was not one of my best subjects. I'll see you at the banquet in Orlando! By the way, if we are forced to go with the pot luck, I make a pretty awesome cheesecake.
1. Cialdini RB. The Science of Persuasion. Scientific American 2001;76-81
2. Cialdini RB. Influence. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1993.