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Drug Company Promotions: A Lost Kitschy Tradition

They don't make them anymore — drug company promotions, that is.

If you were a pharmacist before 2009, you probably remember the drug company representative stopping by your store or hospital and dropping off a few coffee cups, key chains and ballpoint pens.

Well, 2009 was also the year the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) modified their Code on Interactions with Health Care Professionals and made these items sort of “illegal.” That’s why it’s impossible to come by a note pad or anything else bearing the name of a drug on it today. Yes, a big disappointment to many of us.

Fortunately, we have a chance to look back at some of the more incredible promotions that drug companies, drug stores, and other companies associated with the profession gave to doctors, patients and pharmacists to promote and sell their products.

A new book titled The Very Best in Drug Company Promotions . . . and then some is now available. It's 500 pages, 20 chapters and over 1,400 photos of some of the coolest and sometimes most extravagant “reminder items” ever produced, and many will bring a smile to your face. So, let’s start with a few promotions and see how many you remember seeing. These are but the tip of the iceberg.

Tagamet Tommy (or Tummy), came from SKF in 1988 when the market for antacids was hot and spicy. The 5-inch bendie came in two variations, and the writing on the base is the big difference between them. Tommy was associated with an SKF program to educate the public on heartburn which included an “educational” 75-minute VHS tape.

Schering started a promotion back in 1963, giving away a mortar and pestle (pictured is the first, Secundum Artem) to druggists when they purchased cases of Coricidin, Schering’s cold medication, to sell in their stores. A different mortar and pestle would come out each year until 2009, coinciding with PhRMA’s Code as well as the merger of Schering with Merck.

There are 44 different sets (3 years were skipped) with a few being wooden or ceramic, along with a plethora of coffee cups, key chains and other spin-offs using the theme for that year. My particular favorite was from 1999, honoring military Pharmacists.

If you’ve ever seen one of these from Pfizer, you may have missed the hidden message in the dragon sitting atop the porcelain ashtray. COSA was the name used by Pfizer in the late 1950s to identify a line of antibiotics which had gluCOSAmine in them. The dragon will remind you of that but only if you look closely from the tip of his tail to his head. C-O-S-A is hidden right in front of you.

Owens-Illinois, maker of fine prescription wares for druggists, gave small show globes to graduating seniors in the 1950s and 60s.

They also had larger versions, as well as Hall dinnerware, Oneida flatware and Libbey glassware (all with the Crestware pattern), as promotions for case lots of O-I vials and bottles.

Their promotions decorated stores and homes of Pharmacists everywhere and spun off a few other globes from Eli Lilly and Parke-Davis. O-I’s first show globe from the early 1930s stands 23 inches high.

Comments or questions about drug company promotions may be sent to Allen at

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