In Snarky Ads, A Pharmacy Start-up Implies Doctors are Spying

CapsuleAd 1In a stunning display of poor taste and poor timing, an online pharmacy company has blanketed New York City subway cars with ads insinuating that doctors are spying on their patients.

Capsule Pharmacy, which launched last May, attempts to appeal to hip, young, tech-savvy New Yorkers with the following dialog:

“If your doctor’s never heard of Capsule, say,” Where have you been?”

If your doctor says, “None of your business,” say, “Wait, are you a spy?”

If your doctor says, “Yes,” say, “Then who are you spying on?”

If your doctor says, “You,” be careful not to give away any confidential information.”

Capsule claims to be “a better, smarter, kinder” digital pharmacy staffed by “friendly caring pharmacists,” and promising fast, free, door-to-door delivery of prescriptions.

Think of it as Amazon Prime for pharmaceuticals. With a smile.

Though it currently operates only in New York City, Capsule has plans to expand to other regions.

Friends in High Places

The company was founded by pharmacist Sonia Patel, who previously worked with Sam’s Club, and Eric Kinariwala, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who began his career at Bain Capital, a VC firm originally headed by former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential dreamer, Mitt Romney.

One of Capsule’s primary backers is Thrive Capital, an investment fund owned by Joshua Kushner, son of NYC real estate mogul Charles Kushner, and little brother to President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared. The elder Kushner brother had previously been a partner in Thrive, but recently divested owing to his senior advisory role in his father-in-law’s cabinet.

Thrive is the principal managing partner in Capsule. Josh Kushner is also co-founder of Oscar, a small, struggling health insurance company covering roughly 145,000 people in four states, and playing to the sensibilities of young, previously uninsured “cultural creatives” in the tech sector, the arts, and the freelance-based “gig” economy.

In its branding, Capsule shares Oscar’s colorful quasi-Legoland cartoon aesthetic, and tries to hook the same demographic that orders meal kits from Blue Apron, gets around using Uber, and avoids brick-and-mortar stores whenever possible.

Irresponsible Messaging

Capsule’s business model depends on encouraging convenience-driven, would-be customers to convince their doctors and nurses to use Capsule for prescription fulfillment.

In its effort to be edgy and entertaining in its marketing, the company has been reckless. From the get-go, its campaigns have been characterized capsulead 2by questionable—even dangerous—messages. An early subway ad promoted antibiotic overuse --a major public health threat--with the following cutesy copy:

“Someone sneezed? It’s OK, we’ll be right over with some very, very strong antibiotics.”

The new campaign, with its implication that doctors are spies and its wink-wink warning that patients should withhold confidential information crosses the line into frank irresponsibility.

At a time when relationships between practitioners and patients are already strained, it seems deeply inappropriate for a pharmacy to be fostering suspicion.

Given that Capsule’s managing partner has close family ties to a president under investigation for international conspiracy, and to an administration that has never been shy about its desire to radically re-make healthcare for millions of people—the insinuation that doctors have nefarious motives is hard to swallow.

The insult is compounded by the fact that Capsule’s new campaign launched at the same time as the Republican-controlled congress passed a bill to kill internet privacy protections, and enable internet service providers (ISPs) to freely sell personal data about individual internet use without permission.

If anybody is likely to be spying on patients and compromising their confidential information, it is much more likely to be the ISPs, telecom giants, hackers, government agencies, and e-commerce businesses like Capsule Pharmacy-- not physicians who are simply trying to do difficult jobs in increasingly hostile settings.

It is open to debate whether Capsule’s ad choice reflects simple bad taste, the tone-deafness of its young, self-satisfied, and out-of-touch founders, or the unconscious projections of the company’s own questionable intentions.

What’s not debatable is the negative consequence of encouraging mistrust between clinicians and their patients at a time when those relationships are already under assault by 3rd party payors, clinic networks, and incessant time pressures.

Capsule should be held accountable for their egregious and irresponsible marketing.

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