July 30th, 2007
New Stars of TV: Brand-Name Drugs
By John Russell
Lilly products are among those mentioned frequently on popular television shows
Look fast. Here comes another Eli Lilly and Co. drug on your favorite television show.
When he feels his life is spinning out of control, TV mobster Tony Soprano reaches for Prozac, an antidepressant developed by Lilly.
When trauma doctors on “ER” need to treat a heart patient, they shout for ReoPro, a blood-clot buster co-marketed by Lilly.
When a character in the situation comedy “30 Rock” wants to get ready for Valentine’s Day, he takes Cialis, an erectile-dysfunction pill made by Lilly.
In the first half of this year, Lilly products were mentioned 48 times on broadcast and cable TV shows, nearly triple the amount from the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen Product Placement.
But Lilly says it’s not paying for those plugs, unlike consumer-product giants such as Coca-Cola, Toyota and BlackBerry, which shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to TV and movie studios to mention their products in story lines.
“We see these when we’re at home, sitting on the couch, just like everyone else,” said Lilly spokeswoman Judy Kay Moore. “We’re not in cahoots with scriptwriters. We don’t pay them. If it happens, it’s by happenstance.”
To be sure, Lilly is not the only drug company when it comes to TV mentions. In fact, Viagra, Vicodin and Botox, made by competitors, outnumber Lilly’s products by a wide margin.
There were 462 mentions of prescription drugs on TV last year, more than double the number from just two years earlier.
But drug companies are relatively small players in product placement. None breaks into the top 10. Bigger companies such as Nike and Hewlett-Packard dominate, according to Nielsen. Overall, companies paid $3.36 billion globally last year to place their products in TV, film and other media, up 37 percent from a year earlier, according to PQ Media.
Still, Lilly products are popping up across the dial, from situation comedies ("King of Queens,” “Everybody Hates Chris") to medical dramas ("House," “ER") to reality makeover shows ("Freestyle," “What Not to Wear").
Most of the Lilly mentions were for Prozac and Cialis—two household names that need no explanation—and are seen as cultural touchstones. But the context isn’t always flattering.
In an episode of “Freestyle” on HGTV, a homeowner defined a comforting room in her house as her “Prozac room.” In an episode of “House,” a sign over the coffee machine in the doctors’ conference room says “Good coffee—cheaper than Prozac!”
“I don’t think the drug industry really likes this trend at all,” said Rob Frankel, a branding expert in Los Angeles. “Some of the jokes about Viagra and Botox are pretty sarcastic or disparaging. They get darker and deeper when they start mentioning Prozac and Xanax.”
The FDA does not have an explicit position on product placement. In normal advertising, drug makers are prohibited from advertising the benefits of their drugs without mentioning possible risks.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an association that represents many of the country’s biggest drug makers, declined to comment on the topic.
Some product mentions on TV, however, seem outright promotional. In the Jan. 16 episode of ABC’s “Boston Legal,” a teacher got in trouble for failing to administer EpiPen, an injectible medication, to a child who ate peanut candy and died.
The boy’s father, testifying on the show, said: “Anaphylactic shock can come on suddenly, which is what happened here. The airways can become clogged in less than 30 seconds. If the EpiPen isn’t administered, it can be fatal.”
EpiPen’s maker, Dey of Napa, Calif., did not return a call seeking comment.
Some pharmaceutical companies have acknowledged paying for TV plugs. In one episode of the NBC situation comedy “Scrubs,” a logo for the contraceptive brand NuvaRing appeared 11 times, mostly on posters placed in the background.
The brand’s maker, Organon Pharmaceuticals USA of Roseland, N.J., told trade magazine Brandweek that it had done placement deals with several television shows, including CBS’ “King of Queens” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“A lot of the feedback we get is from health-care professionals,” brand director Lisa Barkowski told the publication. “They mention it to (our) reps, ‘Wow, I saw that poster.’ It reinforces in their mind; it makes them think of the product.”
The company did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Despite the billions of dollars the pharmaceutical industry spends on direct-to-consumer advertising, drugs still don’t have the instant connection with consumers that everyday products such as soft drinks and sports cars have, some media experts say. Therefore, television shows can do only so much to plug a drug.
“On some shows, a character can drink a Coke or hop into a car,” said Fariba Zamaniyan, senior vice president for IAG Research in New York. “You can’t do that with a pharmaceutical product. . . . It’s only a brand name. Unless you talk about what the benefits are, you can’t see the value of it.”