After centuries hidden away in the medicine cabinet our industry has finally entered the mainstream. Editor John Pinching fnds out how pharma has been injected into the collective public consciousness forever

Andy Warhol was the ultimate observer of modern human behaviour. Even 35 years after his death he would have instantly recognised – with wide-eyed wonder – the intricacies and nuances of our relationship with the vaccine.

Warhol understood the artistic possibilities of mass consumerism, in the same way that Vincent van Gogh’s bold brush strokes had found beauty in toil and Toulouse Lautrec had captured chaotic scenes of dancing and socialising.

Make no mistake, the vaccine is the ultimate Warholian subject. As sure as he had created prints of the omnipresent products we consumed – Brillo soap pads, Campbell’s Soup, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, bananas and even news itself – we are now in the midst of another mass-produced product to which we are, in our billions, drawn.

The vaccine, like Warhol’s subjects, mirrors our lives as consumers. It may be a uniquely life-saving commodity but it is still subject to the same ‘packaging’ and ‘language’ as all other commercially successful products. And it is this language of pop-culture that many of us will subliminally have needed in order to reconcile the seriousness of the pandemic with the absolute need to take – to consume – the vaccine.

Like Pepsi or cornflakes or celebrity, the oxygen of vaccine publicity has been created by stark visual repetition and its messaging has borrowed the strikingly simple colour palettes of pop art. The visual aesthetic of the vaccine has become embedded in the public consciousness by our exposure to imagery, slogans and pharma logos – again and again and again we have seen news items with carousels of vaccine churned out on the production line.

This cavalcade of tiny bottles was not only demonstrating availability but highlighting the vital importance of taking the vaccine and the subsequent march to liberation.

Quick release

It should be said, pharma has not always been the most approachable industry when it comes to semiotics. Its products don’t feature enticing graphics or typefaces, while discombobulating drug names often leave the impression that someone has simply thrown a dozen Scrabble letters in the air (containing at least one ‘x’, ‘y’ or ‘z’) and labelled the drug according to how they land.

Recently, however, formalities have been cast aside and the product we are now receiving is known colloquially as ‘the vaccine’, as if it were an Anglo-Saxon name from the same reassuring shelf as ‘Wilfred’ or ‘Edith’.

By circumstance and serendipity, the shackles normally associated with drug discovery have loosened when it comes to the vaccine. Some of the excitement which is normally impossible to convey has been allowed to roam, while some of the pyrotechnics which never usually accompany incredible breakthroughs have filled the sky.

Big tech companies have incredibly dramatic super-seminars when they release a mobile phone with a ‘slightly better camera’. Why shouldn’t pharma grab some of the limelight? After all, it is saving the human race.

The ubiquity of the vaccine has triggered millions of micro-conversations about pharma. With familiarity comes reassurance – it is reminiscent of the ‘new’ world that the young Warhol inhabited, but instead of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, people are waking up to Moderna and Pfizer.

Indeed, it is somewhat curious that the habits of consumerism – so often our undoing and, perhaps, a contributor to the international pandemic – have also enabled us to embrace the vaccine in such huge numbers. This is life representing art. It is taking Warhol’s screen prints and seeing ourselves reflected back.

And that really crystallises what has happened with pharma – it’s emergence among the masses as a fully fledged demystified entity has very little to do with a conservative government, politics or policy and much more to do with the brand of neoliberalism which so fascinated Andy Warhol, with its central totems of availability and accessibility.

Warhol saw that – irrespective of your socio-economic status, ethnicity, sexuality or background – almost anyone could access Adidas trainers, Burger King, Levi Jeans, glamour, number one hit records etc. Now pharma has, after centuries of regulatory-induced elusiveness, and via a circuitous route, finally become a keycard holder to the gates of popular culture.

Warhol’s ability to see availability through the prism of colour and access has never held greater relevance.

Pop icons

So how did pharma pop? What sparked the societal shift?

A crisis of discombobulating proportions – that’s what. Historically, people have tended not to discuss prescriptions but, as of December 2020, the vaccine vernacular began to seep into common language. Desperate for the possibility of an escape from an unpredictable and deadly pandemic, communities started openly discussing, first the rumours of a vaccine and then, mercifully, the reality of its creation.

As a person who has written and discussed pharma with mainly industry people, it was curiously satisfying to witness vaccine-related gossip being exchanged between parents at the school gates, football fans in the pub and family members at the dinner table.

These included everything from very deep discussions about salvation to bizarre tittle-tattle regarding who had received the best vaccine (or combination thereof). This was serious pop territory – their tone could, so easily, have been mistaken for a verbal exchange about television or music.

Suddenly, Prof Sarah Gilbert – designer of the Oxford vaccine – was a household name. Meanwhile, whispers were circulating that pharma companies had other amazingly innovative people working for them; that pharma was mostly motivated by good and that pharma was quite possibly the most exciting industry in the known universe!

Instant pharma

The unstoppable force which has enabled the vaccine, and wider pharma, to move into the popular culture labyrinth is fuelled by instant gratification.

Ignited by the life sciences industry’s mind-boggling ability to condense the work of a decade into six months, the vaccine exploded onto the scene in a way that was much more akin to the release of an album or greatly anticipated feature film. Amid this sense of drama, pharma was effectively entering a new dimension.

After months of the pandemic, people in their millions have made the pilgrimage to medical centres, surgeries, pharmacies and buildings in their towns they never knew existed. They received their jabs and felt the instant gratification; the empowerment and the freedom we typically associate with other aspects of consumerism. That’s not to say that pharma isn’t part of our lives – it always has been – but this moment seemed to embody its place ‘in the mainstream’.

Traction within popular culture will always create division – it goes with the territory. The key to remaining in the public eye is to sustain a healthy equilibrium. Taylor Swift, Mars Bars, the Queen, Pot Noodles and Coronation Street endure because their supporters outweigh their detractors. Compact discs, Neighbours and Blockbuster Video have faced cancellation because the opposite applies.

By an overwhelming margin pharma’s contribution to the pandemic has been celebrated, but for some, being the most regulated and, by definition, scientifically scrutinised industry in the world has not been enough.

Many people refusing to take the vaccine have seized on pharma’s sudden popularity, attaching themselves to the host industry in an attempt to disperse the virus of stupidity.

We all have a responsibility to spread good vibes about the vaccine and gently nudge doubters (and many are well-meaning) into a position of supporting the science.

When the international pandemic is raked over in decades to come, I’m convinced that more people who were unsure about the vaccine were ultimately convinced to get it, than those swayed by other forces.

Message in a bottle

Now that pharma is out there, you can’t put the vaccine back in the bottle. The success of a therapy conjured up in roughly the time it takes to submit a report into parties at Downing Street has smashed the glass ceiling.

Ultimately, the vaccine’s arrival – pharma’s first steps into popular culture – will change the game. It will fire the cylinders of inclusivity, throw open the doors of diversity, ignite drug development and radically alter the design of clinical trials.

It will trigger dialogue about cancer treatments, mental health conditions and rare disease therapies. It will make people much more comfortable about medicine, leading to more cross-pollination from people in other industries, while also addressing the seismic industry challenge of climate change and sustainability. The solution to which, incidentally, can only be fully addressed by using pharma’s emergence within popular culture. It will, in every sense, unmask pharma once and for all.

In the final analysis, it has taken an existential crisis of global proportions for pharma to be propelled onto centre stage.

One of the final artworks by Andy Warhol was a series of enormous ‘Last Supper’ prints; an homage to da Vinci’s depiction of Christ and his dinner guests, as their complicated relationships unfold – love colliding with hate; mistrust grappling with honesty; loyalty co-existing with deceit.

Warhol’s pop art versions realised the masterpiece’s timelessness, used striking hues and even camouflage to emphasise the complexity of the human condition.

The enduring message from this painting is that we are all sitting at the table while life is going off. But, most profoundly, it asks what are we all doing while life is going on?

Walk to freedom

And so we take our first tentative steps across the post-pandemic terrain, gradually liberated from the monumental turmult of the past two years.

Collectively, we’ll squint at the vague familiarities, our eyes won’t dart quite so anxiously around Aldi and we’ll refrain from insisting ‘it’s not COVID’ everytime we stifle a sneeze.

In time, we will return to hugging everyone we meet, we’ll slip back into a routine of overwork and we’ll condense our deepest emotions into a sequence of tiny digital pictures. Then and only then, can we truly say – we’re back!