DEPRESSION. Arthritis. High cholesterol.
Name an ailment and there is probably a television commercial somewhere that is advertising about the disorder and promoting a prescription drug that treats it. Only programming for young people has more or less escaped the trend.
But no longer.
Both Roche Laboratories and Galderma Laboratories have been running ad campaigns aimed at teenagers to make them aware of prescription medications that treat that most common but angst-laden adolescent condition: acne.
The campaigns reflect the phenomenal growth of consumer advertising of prescription drugs, which exceeded $1.4 billion last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting, a media research firm in New York.
Promoting prescription medicine to young people is unusual -- Galderma may be the first to advertise a prescription product to teenagers by brand name -- but it is not illegal. And for acne medication, the timing may be right. New medications have made it so no one has to look like Holden Caulfield anymore.
"The treatments for acne have improved dramatically over the years," said Stephen Clark, the president of Galderma. "Just about anyone who has acne and goes to a dermatologist early can prevent the scarring and the psychological problems that acne can cause."
Both Roche, a unit of Hoffmann-La Roche, and Galderma, a venture of Nestlé and L'Oréal, are running their campaigns on family and youth-oriented programming on national cable television. Roche, for instance, has spots on the Nickelodeon Channel. And though both ad campaigns deal with the emotional toll of acne, their approaches are very different. Both companies spent more than $8 million on television advertising for the 11 months ended in November.
Galderma's campaign promotes and talks about Differin, a topical ointment introduced in 1997. Roche, which markets Accutane, the leading prescription acne drug, is running "health education messages," which only talk about acne but never promote nor even mention its prescription drug by name.
Young people are the natural target because 85 percent will get acne. But they are also an elusive group for marketers to reach.
"Roughly 80 percent of acne patients treat themselves with over-the-counter brands," said Fred Kellogg, chairman of NCI Advertising in New York, an agency that specializes in pharmaceutical advertising. "Advertising will drive parents and kids to the dermatologist where more medications are available."
The Roche spots feature a teenager upset about acne -- in one he is called "pizza face" by his pals -- and are designed to persuade parents and children to talk about the condition and seek help with a dermatologist, said Melissa Ziriakus, a Roche spokeswoman. The spots let the viewer know that treatment is available through a dermatologist and includes a toll-free number that provides general information and doctor referral from the American Academy of Dermatology. The academy does not endorse companies or products, said a spokeswoman, Donna Stein.
The Roche ads are probably designed to expand the market, said Hemant Shah, president of HKF & Company, pharmaceutical consultants in Warren, N.J. And, he said, the strategy makes sense because if more patients go to the doctor for acne, a certain percentage will be prescribed the most popular medication on the market -- Roche's Accutane. Pharmaceutical companies have run similar efforts for other ailments, including high cholesterol, migraines and depression.
"The idea is to expand the market and just get them interested and motivated," Mr. Shah said. "And teenagers aren't the easiest patients to motivate."
One advantage of advertising the ailment, instead of the brand, is that a drug company avoids mentioning potential side effects of its drug, which is required under the Food and Drug Administration's "fair balance" guidelines, said Mark Worman, president of McCann-Erickson Consumer Healthcare, part of the McCann-Erickson unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
"Fair balance sometimes either doesn't permit a company to be as specific as they want to, or so clouds the ad that it might scare people away," Mr. Worman said.
Of Galderma's two commercials, one is intended for teenagers and the other is meant for women 25 to 40. The company is reaching out to women because of an unexplained increase in acne cases in that group, Mr. Clark said.
The 60- and 90-second spots tell of a toll-free number to call for information about Differin. The number is changed according to where and when the spots run so the company can track the effectiveness of its ads.
"The teen audience is more difficult to reach than the adult female," said Harold Barnett, Galderma's vice president for marketing. "The teen has to get Mom or Dad involved, while the adult female picks up the phone and calls the doctor."
Galderma's direct approach is the more common method of advertising prescription drugs to consumers. Years ago, companies were discouraged from directly promoting their drugs in consumer advertising, but the F.D.A. set specific guidelines in 1997 that helped pave the way for the current explosion in prescription drug advertising on television.
"Standards for direct-to-consumer advertising have been around since the 1970's, but before 1997 it was, practically speaking, hard" to advertise to the public, said Brad Stone, an F.D.A. spokesman.
No regulations prohibit advertising prescription drugs to youngsters, and Mr. Stone said there was a built-in safeguard in that they would have to go to a doctor to get a prescription, which would typically require adult approval.
Even the American Academy of Dermatology is getting into the act. The academy will for the first time begin a major campaign to educate young people about help for skin conditions like acne. Public service ads featuring the magician David Copperfield are scheduled to run later this year.
"The message is we don't want anything to get in the way of being a kid," Ms. Stein said.
Patricia Winters Lauro, The New York Times, March 16, 2000
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