Pfizer’s online community about aging fails to impress blogger

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), is a freelance journalist based in Denver and former topic leader on aging for AHCJ. She haswritten for the New York Times, Kaiser Health News, the Washington Post, the Journal of the American Medical Association, STAT News, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

If you don’t know about Ronni Bennett’s blog – Time Goes By: what it’s really like to get older – you should.

Core Topics
Health Reform
Aging
Other Topics

It’s one of the most consumer-centered sources of information about aging on the Internet. For the most part, it’s written by people experiencing this stage of life firsthand, not those studying or writing about it from a distance.

Bennett was a longtime journalist before she ran into what she calls “a wall of age discrimination” and ended up forcibly retired. The blog expresses her values: Drop the pretense, tell it like it is, and steer clear of advertising and sales pitches.

Bennett describes the site’s genesis this way:

“It was launched in 2003 after I had spent seven or eight years on a personal research project to find out what it’s like to grow old. There wasn’t much good news. From the popular press to scholarly and medical journals, books, government, advocacy groups and NGOs, one message stood out: aging equals decline, disease and debility. No one had anything good to say about it.

Refusing to believe that my future would be that sad and bleak, and since no one else was was doing it, I decided to write about what it’s really like to get old. I had no illusions then that there would be much audience for such a loser topic but in time, I was happily proved wrong.”

If you spend time on the blog, you’ll find an abundance of riches. In addition to regular posts from Bennett and other contributors, there is a carefully compiled list of blogs by and about elders – a gold mine for reporters. There is Bennett’s touching description of her mom’s final illness and death, a subject that all kinds of writers have been tackling recently in various publications. (More on this later in another blog post)

And there is a weblog, the Elder Storytelling Place, where people can share their day-to-day experiences with humor, tenderness, practicality, or any other approach that seems fitting. I especially like the way Bennett introduces this section:

“Among Carl Jung’s seven tasks of aging is to find meaning in one’s life and one way to help in this task is to pull together, piece by piece, one’s memories – great and small – into a coherent storyline. In doing so, there is a natural shift of our attention inward, says Jung, leading to the removal of regret and to reconciliation. In telling our stories we not only fulfill Jung’s task for ourselves, we pass on the wisdom we have gained to those who listen or read.”

I thought of Time Goes By this week when I encountered the media buzz accompanying a new initiative called “Get Old,” funded by drug giant Pfizer and supported by advocacy organizations such as the National Alliance for Caregiving and Easter Seals.

(See the press release here. For selected media coverage, see the Washington Post‘s write-up and CBS Money Watch’s and USA Today‘s.)

The centerpiece of this project is a new website, www.GetOld.com. In press release speak, the site is touted as a “first-of-its-kind online community” where “people can get and share information, add to the dialogue, and contribute to the growing body of knowledge” about aging.

I imagine Bennett might object to that description. And I’m darned sure she’d object to Pfizer’s sponsorship of this venture as well. (See her recent post, “No Way to Treat a Crabby Elderblogger,” if you have any doubts.)

It’s a savvy move on Pfizer’s part, aligning itself with all those consumer organizations, adopting an attitude of listening to people with an open, curious mindset, positioning itself as a company that helps people live longer and enjoy new experiences. But do not deceive yourself for even an instant: The goal here is to bolster the Pfizer brand and, ultimately, sell more of the drugs that the company links so effectively with longevity and quality of life.

If you have any doubts, see this Pfizer-sponsored video on the company’s “Smart Marketing Page” for the “Get Old” campaign. (I must be getting old: I’ve never encountered a Smart Marketing Page before. I use caps here, as in the press release, to emphatically express the importance of such a page.)

Judith GrahamJudith Graham (@judith_graham), AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover the many issues around our aging society.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to judith@healthjournalism.org.

Maybe all the participating consumer organizations have received assurances that no cleverly disguised sales pitches will appear on www.GetOld.com and that all information deriving from this project will be unbiased. But, fellow journalists, do you trust that will be the case? And why did so many stories about this initiative ignore that issue and swallow the Gallup & Robinson survey results – the news peg in the press release designed to secure media coverage – hook, line and sinker?

Update:

Bennett sent me some comments about the “Get Old” site after I let her know I was writing this post. I’ve edited them below for length.

“Mostly I object to the website. What a disaster. It violates just about every established guideline for useful, readable, entertaining websites, so much so for elders in both design and content that it’s an insult to us.

As you undoubtedly know, individual elders age at dramatically different rates than people in younger stages of life so that sometimes an 80-year-old’s decline – as in eyesight, for example – can be no more than that of a 50- or 60-year-old. Other times, a 60-year-old can have aged as much as an average 80-something. This also applies to one’s emotional, intellectual and psychic development.

So to section the website by age makes no sense at all, especially when they encourage readers to register their ages so that they can, as the site states, “provide you with stories and information that are relevant and customized for you.” It just doesn’t work that way when talking about elders.

Long before old age, by 40 on average, the majority of us wear reading glasses. But Pfizer has made the text so tiny on their section-front pages, there is no way to know the subject of the item before clicking on it and, even then, the topic is often unclear.

As people age, their eyes have trouble distinguishing between certain colors when they abut one another: red/orange, for example, and blue/green. Yet Pfizer – on that awful “jumble” page of unreadable topics – mixes blue and green boxes that too many elders will blend together.

The site fails aesthetically from page one; there is nothing inviting there, nothing engaging, nothing to pique anyone’s interest. It’s badly conceived and executed.

4 thoughts on “Pfizer’s online community about aging fails to impress blogger

  1. Chris Loder

    Hi Judith,

    This is Chris Loder from Pfizer. Read your post and want to point out that Get Old is a multi-year initiative which was not designed to support any Pfizer brand or medicine. The goal of Get Old is to amplify the conversation on aging and learn more about how Americans at all ages are tackling aging for themselves, their family and society.

    Speaking of learning more, thank you for the feedback about the site. Getting feedback that is good and bad is part of the listening process and we plan to make adjustments to the site over time.

    Chris

  2. Carolyn Thomas

    Thanks so much for this, Judith.

    Ronni Bennett’s criticisms of “Get Old” are right on the money. In fact, had there not already been such a useful, smart, savvy resource as Ronni’s own “Time Goes By”, there might actually be some good reason for Pfizer to launch this unfortunately-named new website. (Good grief, what genius at Pfizer thought THAT one up?)

    I fully agree with Ronni’s astute description of this industry initiative as “badly conceived and executed”. Big Pharma is no stranger, however, to seeking partnerships with advocacy/consumer groups as part of their strategic marketing plans in order to (as the Pfizer news release puts it) “help inform the unmet needs related to aging and what role the company and its partners can play to help people live longer and better lives.”

    Seeking to identify “unmet needs” is a surefire way to widen your target sales markets. I’m dismayed to see the names of the 10 “partners” who have been convinced to aid and abet these marketing goals.

  3. Cathy Johnson

    I am sorry to say that I have to concur with the commenter who said that Ronni Bennet’s criticisms are “right on the money”. Even before looking at the content and structure of the site, I was appalled by the name — GetOld.com. What the heck? What are the alternatives? It might just as well have been named, “justhangonanddon’tdie.com”. Beyond the name, I found the “one size fits all” approach of directing readers to pages based on age, gender, and current frame of mind about getting old (my outlook sometimes changes from day to day, based on what the day brings) to be demeaning and poorly thought out. Even the design of the page with a jumble of juxtaposed boxes put me off. It’s disappointing that this is, as Chris Loder of Pfizer reports in his comment, the result of a multi-year initiative. I have been a faithful reader of Ms. Bennet’s Time Goes By blog since discovering it about sixteen monts ago when I became a fulltime caregiver for my 92 year old mother-in-law with dementia. I am also a senior in my early sixties, but before taking on caregiving for someone much older, I had not realized how poorly informed I was on the subject of aging and everything related to it. Time Goes By, and the sharing of information by the readers and contributors on that blog, has been one of the saving graces that has helped me to stay focused and positive (usually) on the unfolding process of aging and caregiving.

    Thank you for the coverage of the Pfizer initiative. I am hopeful that the site will continue to be refined and improved, based on the feedback. I was not familiar with your work before this article either, but I have subscribed and look forward to reading more of it.

    Cathy

  4. Joared

    I just visited this Pfizer site — read all the “About” info and easily discerned as a law-abiding card-carrying older adult I have no intention whatsoever of succumbing to or colluding with this drug company self-serving commercial venture — however they want to describe it.

    The health care system would be much better served and more cost-effective if Pfizer would stick to the business of manufacturing drugs and spend much less money on advertising, marketing and self-promotion with a site like that one. I recognize what has the potential to be a con job when I see one.

    Clearly this web site is NOT geared to the needs of older people and/or those with special needs in terms of design — reflecting how lacking they are in the basic understanding of the aging process. Obviously, what they’re primarily interested in doing is gathering as much personal information as they can about individuals naive enough to participate, however the language is parsed.

    I note we cannot even enter the website for exploration of the information they purport to want to provide without paying the price of their intrusive requirement of providing personal information.

    Can pharmaceutical coupons and “special deals” be far behind to lure readers into entering their spider’s web created for covertly gathering individuals private health data? We see the corporate interworkings and connectedness when we read the newspaper and TV promotions and must wonder how warranted they are to receive such publicity.

    There are numerous much more free open reputable reliable sources for personal aging accounts and information without possible hidden agendas that people would be wiser to consult including one of, if not, the best — Ronni Bennett’s “Time Goes By” I discovered six years ago.

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