It’s natural for the recipient of a gift to feel a sense of gratitude toward the giver and, very likely, a desire to return the favor. That a gift engenders a sense of obligation hasn’t been lost on the corporate sales forces of the world who shower prospective customers with promotional pens and tote bags and display an excessive enthusiasm for picking up the tabs at lunch or dinner.
How much goodwill—and profits—do those pens and sandwiches actually buy? One stark and troubling indication comes in a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which shows that when academic medical centers placed limits on the gifts pharmaceutical sales reps could give doctors and the time they could spend with them, there was an immediate decline in the market share of the drugs they were pushing. The size of the effect, while modest in percentage terms, implies that the work of pharmaceutical sales reps—and the gifts they bear—translates into billions of dollars in extra revenues for drug companies.