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Drug Companies Revisit Ad Campaigns

Client confidentiality prevents Andrew Schirmer from revealing specifics, but it's easy to believe his claim that his job has been especially challenging lately.

Schirmer is trying to devise a new ad campaign for Viagra, Pfizer Inc.'s erectile dysfunction drug, after racy spots for impotency pills helped fuel the public's ire over drug commercials. There hasn't been a Viagra TV ad since November 2004, when regulators requested Pfizer halt the commercials because they violated several regulations, including making unsubstantiated claims.

"With all the sex in ads, this is the one place where we can't use sex," lamented Schirmer, managing director of McCann Humancare, an agency specializing in healthcare ads.

Facing a furor over its advertising practices and the potential of more government regulation, the pharmaceutical industry adopted voluntary guidelines to improve the accuracy and balance of ads so that the severity of diseases and drugs' side effects aren't whitewashed.

The guidelines, announced last summer, have already sparked changes: Spending on brand advertising is flat while disease awareness campaigns are flourishing. The look of the ads has become more straightforward; doctors describing products is becoming de rigueur.

The possibility of more government regulation looms. Late last year, the Food and Drug Administration held two days of public hearings on drug advertising and is now reviewing comments on the subject. The FDA said it was too early to say whether any new rules would be instituted, but some say it is likely.

"Whenever there is a public hearing, it is a sign that change is coming," said Gary Messplay, a lawyer who represents drug companies. Although Messplay praised the guidelines, he said they were "a little too little, a little too late."

Only 18% of consumers believe that pharmaceutical ads can be trusted "most of the time," according to a study released last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's down by almost half since 1997, when one-third of people surveyed said you could trust ads most of the time.

The withdrawal of Merck & Co. pain reliever Vioxx in September 2004 cast a harsh spotlight on direct-to-consumer ads. The heavily promoted drug was found to have potentially lethal side effects after long-term use.

Last year, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called for a two-year moratorium on advertising new drugs, saying commercials drove up healthcare costs. Thirty-five percent of Americans favor such a ban, according to a survey last year by Harris Interactive for the Wall Street Journal Online.

Total spending on drug advertising rose 4.9% to $4.7 billion in 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Spending on branded ads was essentially flat at $4.1 billion. Both categories had been up more than 20% the previous two years.

The flat spending on brand advertising can be tied to the lack of ads for Vioxx and Pfizer's Celebrex, as well as drops in advertising for impotency drugs and some antidepressants, said Jon Swallen, director of research at TNS.

Meanwhile, spending on corporate and disease-awareness commercials ? a fraction of drug advertising ? rose 44.4% to $523 million. The industry guidelines call for more disease awareness ads, such as Pfizer's campaign on erectile dysfunction.

Schirmer says the new commercials reflect an environment in which companies are wary of airing campaigns that could violate industry guidelines or FDA regulations.

There has been "an explosion of white coats on television ads," commercials featuring doctors discussing drugs' benefits and risks, Schirmer said.

Ruth Day, a Duke University professor who studies drug ads, said the parade of doctors more accurately reflected the seriousness of prescription drugs than some earlier "cute" ads.

But the trend troubles some ad agency executives who say that if commercials look alike, patients will tune out the messages.

"There is just a lot of safeness out there now," Schirmer said. "We can't get the hotshot creative types we could two years ago, and that horrifies me."

Clients may be less willing to take creative risks, said Matt Giegerich, president and CEO of communications company CommonHealth. For example, CommonHealth created a campaign for AstraZeneca's cholesterol medicine Crestor, featuring a Dr. Seuss-like rhyme extolling the product, which was criticized for trivializing a serious condition. Giegerich doubted the ad would be accepted today even though it was very effective, because no company wants its commercial to be a lightning rod for critics.

Companies are shifting money away from television ads into other avenues such as public relations and the Internet because it is difficult to present a balanced portrait of a drug in a 30-second or 60-second spot, Giegerich said.

Pat Kelly, president of Pfizer U.S. Pharmaceuticals, said that the company was not skittish about creative commercials and that the new guidelines were "a perfect opportunity for [ad executives] to come up with new approaches."

Meanwhile, the quest for the Viagra ad continues. No new campaign is scheduled, and Kelly concedes that developing new ads isn't easy.

"This medicine is associated with sex," he said. "Nothing associated with sex doesn't create criticism."


Associated Press, March 14, 2006

Copyright © 2006 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.