The minute we’re born, we begin to age. This was apparently the number one concern occupying respondents of a 2011 Gallup survey commissioned by pharma giant Pfizer and the finding upon which the company has based its Get Old social media campaign.

In a press release announcing the multi-year initiative that began last month, Pfizer tied it to the company’s larger mission of improving the health of all people at every stage of life.

PR platitudes aside, the initiative also marks Pfizer’s lengthening social media shadow, cast, in part, by CEO Ian Read, who has criticized the industry for being “slow to adapt” to today’s more open society. Pharma’s hesitation no doubt informs Edelman’s 2011 Trust Barometer, which found public confidence in businesses, governments, and, in a new development, NGOs slipping at a noticeable rate.

When that focus was narrowed to Pfizer alone, the results were no better: About 45 percent of respondents described the drugmaker as unethical and not credible. Not acceptable, according to Read.

Last week at the Business Development Institute’s (BDI) annual conference on social communications and healthcare, Caroline Roan, Pfizer vice president of corporate responsibility and reputation commented on this:

Having our chairman and CEO recognize the importance of trust for the company has given us permission to take more risks

“Risk,” in Roan’s characterization, defines the social media space, long a jittery landscape for pharma because, although the FDA regulates the industry’s communications around product benefits and safety, it has yet to release official social media guidelines (Draft guidelines became available in January).

As a result, pharma companies that have ventured forth in social media instead attempt to raise awareness around various diseases, advocate for patients, or blare corporate communications.

Is Pfizer really taking a risk?

When Robert Libbey, Pfizer’s senior director of global communications, joined Roan on the BDI stage and proudly emphasized that the Get Old site contained no content about the company’s products, and Roan said she hoped Pfizer would receive some kudos for its risk-taking, it wasn’t immediately clear what either of them were talking about.

Strategically-speaking, referencing Pfizer products on the site would likely turn users off and open the drugmaker up to questions about their products’ benefits and safety—exactly the kind of discussion that makes legal teams nervous.

Turns out Roan was referring to the campaign’s “positioning,” meaning both its subject matter (aging) and its nomenclature (Get Old). The former was, as Pfizer reports, determined by their 2011 survey and supported by the staggering number of Americans turning sixty-five daily: 10,000 per day, according to the company’s press release. Also, it’s probably no coincidence that Pfizer is furiously at work on drugs that mitigate or cure Alzheimer’s. The campaign name, however, caused “a fair amount of disagreement within the company,” admitted Roan. 

A lot of people don’t like it. Our perspective is that’s okay. We chose something in a very crowded communications space. We wanted people to pause and think about the fact that there actually is something to getting older. The alternative is not great.

Drawing chuckles from the crowd with her last comment, Roan concluded by stressing that Pfizer “wanted to demonstrate that we really are serious about this. We really do want to have a two-way dialogue.”

Unfortunately, Pfizer is not a great conversationalist

Take, for example, how the drugmaker began the conversation: with a directive to “Get Old,” which is (a) bossy and (b) unnecessary. We don’t have a choice. The alternative, as Roan pointed out, is grim. A more charitable (if misguided) reading is to understand the campaign name as a prompt, a way to perceive or “get” aging. If so, that vocabulary is dated, harkening back to the 1960s (or something).

Finally, no one suddenly “gets old,” though it may feel that way. Instead it should read “getting older” because it accurately captures the evolving, dynamic state of aging. The end result is the same: it’s an awkward, confusing name, and it’s easy to see why there was in-fighting about it.

On a macro-level, though, is aging a good rallying point? On the face of it, sure. As Pfizer’s chief medical officer, Dr. Freda-Lewis Hall, observed, “Each day we get older.” Each day—nay, second—we breathe. Each morning we wake—reluctantly, happily, gratefully, but still we wake. These are not choices, but molecular inevitabilities. Neither are they subjects that compel me to visit a website, type my age and gender, and then tell others how I feel about things. 

What about the Get Old UX?

The home page asks visitors how they feel about getting old and then offers them a choice of four answers. To choose one, visitors have to enter their age and gender.

Once this bit of data-gathering concludes, users are then shown in jumble view stuff about aging. You can choose the grid view later, but the default is lots of color-coded, post-it style notes arranged haphazardly. Why? It’s like visiting a coworker’s messy desk and trying to find, among a bunch of stuff, the thing you were looking for.

Get Old’s content consists of 200 videos, 100 images, and 500 miscellaneous pieces from approximately 350 sources, according to Libbey. As promised, all of it centers around getting old. There’s a link to a New York Times article about grown women who get acne, a video of Aubrey de Grey defining ageism, a plug for Pfizer partner VNAA (Visiting Nurse Association of America), and another New York Times article about keeping Parkinson’s disease a secret.

And users can add their own stuff. Gary M., 43, shared his thoughts: “I feel great and I pursue life like an undergrad.” No one has responded. Is it because there’s nothing to say? “Gary, that’s awesome! I wish I had your energy,” or “Gary, why are you still at keggers and dating teenagers?”

Despite the 800 pieces of content at Get Old, there’s not a lot to motor a conversation forward that you couldn’t find on your own elsewhere at sites that have preexisting, robust communities. Those New York Times articles? If you decide to leave the Get Old site and read it at the original source (Pfizer gives you this choice), then why wouldn’t you comment there? 

Pfizer is setting the bar low

Libbey told the audience that the site had 40,000+ uniques in an approximately four-week period, and Roan explained that Pfizer had set modest quantitative goals for reach (visitors, Twitter followers, Facebook likes) because they’re still learning about the social media space, which, like all good conversations, is a two-way dialogue in which each party feels heard. “We do a great job of talking about our products,” she said. “What I think we haven’t done a very good job with is actually listening.” 

Now that’s what Pfizer should be complimented on: admitting its flaws and trying to correct them. Craving recognition for taking on the “risky” topic of growing old or for wading into the social media waters is like wanting a gold star for fixing your bed when you’re forty.

People can’t help aging, and 955 million users compose the Facebook social network. It’s time Pfizer stopped fearing the social media bogeyman and joined other industries and the public and the online conversations happening at all times.