August 29th, 2008

Making a Name for Drugs Without Using Their Names

By Alicia Mundy
The Wall Street Journal

Some Ads Highlight Only Web Addresses So Side Effects Don't Have to Be Listed

Pfizer Inc. has found a way to encourage the use of its antismoking drug Chantix without detailing serious potential side effects through a commercial that doesn’t mention Chantix at all.

During NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Olympics this month, Pfizer aired a commercial in which a middle-age woman tells the camera, “At 6:30 in the morning, I have a cigarette. And then another on my way to work.” During the 60-second commercial, a voice discusses ways to break the habit and directs viewers to Visitors to the site find a link to a Chantix site that contains information on the antismoking drug, including the negative side effects.

Such “unbranded product advertising” like the spot is gaining popularity among drugmakers, which in recent months have come under renewed fire from lawmakers for the ways in which they promote drugs directly to consumers.

Under Food and Drug Administration rules, if an ad doesn’t directly name the drug, it doesn’t have to include the reading of possible side effects that can chew up expensive television time. An Eli Lilly & Co. ad for its osteoporosis drug Evista, for example, spent 25 of its 60 seconds listing risks such as blood clots and “dying from stroke.”

The unbranded efforts include 15-second ads created by Sanofi-Aventis SA to promote a Web site called Visitors to the site discover that it promotes the anti-insomnia pill Ambien. The rooster Web site got 400,000 hits in the first seven days on the air this month.

Direct-to-consumer drug advertising dropped nearly 30% in the first quarter, experts say, but such TV ads surged temporarily during the Olympics. One night during the Games, NBC host Bob Costas noted that the 3 a.m. rerun of the primetime broadcast was sponsored by the maker of Ambien. “No lie,” he said. “There’s irony there somewhere.”

This unbranded approach has been used in the past to promote disease awareness and build markets for treatments for those disease.Bob Ehrlich of DTC Perspectives, which monitors direct to consumer advertising by drug makers, says the Ambien and Chantix promotions may be clever, but “There’s a risk they could rouse congressional ire over cute commercials that don’t emphasize medicine.”

Pfizer says it isn’t pushing Chantix in its ads, or trying to circumvent FDA rules. “The goal of the My Time to Quit campaign is to encourage people to quit smoking,” said company spokeswoman Sally Beatty.

“My Time to Quit is designed to encourage people who are thinking about quitting to speak to their healthcare provider about the benefits of quitting smoking and available treatment options,” she said.

Chantix had sales last year of $883 million. But recently, it has been losing ground following reports linking the drug to suicides and suicidal behavior. That led to an FDA alert in February. A study this spring linked Chantix to drowsiness and more than 100 accidents. That led federal aviation regulators to ban it for use by pilots. Pfizer has said that it stands by the safety of Chantix.

The commercial first aired in December 2006 a few months after the drug came to market. As Chantix’ popularity boomed, Pfizer ran a different ad that mentioned the drug.

But in June, in the wake of the study on accidents and Chantix, Pfizer relaunched My Time to Quit.

“With unbranded ads, you don’t have the ‘fair balance’ requirement,” said Rich Gagnon of the ad agency DraftFCB, part of Interpublic Group of Companies Inc., in New York. “Imagine paying millions to run that ad campaign, and having to use up 30 seconds to list all the problems,” said Mr. Gagnon, who has several pharmaceutical clients.

Ruth Day of Duke University, a frequent critic of direct to consumer ads, gave the commercial and website high marks for useful information. An expert in how medical ads work on consumers, Dr. Day said is relatively easy and gets to lists of side effects quickly.

Pfizer had originally been skeptical of unbranded “help-seeking” and “disease-awareness ads.” In late 2005, an executive said that such ads “do not drive patients to the doctor” as well as ads that offer a solution.


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