Can we monetize medicines with ads?

Filing this under #RandomThoughts

Vijay Krishna Palepu
3 min readJan 27, 2022

I was reading this tweet about Mark Cuban’s new company/venture


And a stray thought entered my mind:

What if there is a way for us to generate non-generic-level profits off of generic drugs? Would the world be bold enough to try it?

Meds are clearly expensive because the cost of pharmaceutical and medical research needs to be recovered somehow. So big pharma sets up a patent shield to protect their profits. But more often than not, the base cost of manufacturing a drug, or vaccine, is pennies on the dollar (if that).

In other words, the base product is very, very cheap; and would not be profitable without all those patents. This is problematic for all those poor, ill people who cannot afford the price-gouged drugs.

Countries like India tend to get around this problem by being a hub for generics (the kind that Mr. Cuban and Dr. Feigl-Ding are calling out above). Generics offer cheap competitive alternatives, which do not make a lot of money per unit. But they make meds a lot more accessible. This ensures that life saving medicine like an asthma inhaler costs only $2-4 in India, when it retails at $50 in the US.

But what if companies could rely on selling generics to make the kind of per-unit profit they are used with non-generic drugs?

Put ads on the box or bottle of meds/pills/cough syrup.

Heck put ads on the injection/syringe that we use to inoculate ourselves with — the rates of COVID-19 inoculations might even go up if we put the right kinds of ads. I know that this is a crazy idea. But consider:

Medicines are a ubiquitous ad-delivery mechanism

For one thing they are everywhere. Even young healthy 20-someones have a bottle of aspirin lying around their apartment somewhere.

Prior public-messaging campaigns have a track record

For another thing we know that public messaging campaigns work when they are delivered alongside products that we ingest in our bodies: I am thinking of all those graphic warning on cigarette packets, which are used to great effect in reducing the sales of smokes.

source: FDA,
source: FDA,

How Facebook pays its data-centers costs and makes a profit

Finally, the “new” age internet companies from the 2010’s figured out how to deliver relatively expensive products like social media and email for free, by tying them to ads. Even when ads are not customized, they can stand to generate a sizable chunk of revenue. And these companies have gotten big, fat and rich (think products like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail). They have gotten so rich that they have enough money to throw around on vanity projects like self-driving cars and the metaverse.

The costs recovered from the base price of the drug and the money made from the ads delivered on the drug packaging/bottles really ought to cover the same levels of profits that big-pharma is accustomed to by selling patent-protected drugs.

My attempt at mocking an ad for Ferrari on an asthma inhaler. (The ad slogans practically write themselves)

The picture above shows an ad for Ferrari on an asthma inhaler (with my lame photoshopping skills). And before you tell me that this is far fetched, consider that one of the biggest drug manufacturers of the COVID-19 vaccines in the world started out by breeding horses. So, if a horse breeder can make medicines, then a medicine manufacturer can put ads on their packaging that features a horse.

I know! I know! It is a crazy idea. But what if?



Vijay Krishna Palepu

researcher • software • program analysis . debugging • UCI • blogger • software visualizations • Microsoft • Views my own •