September 2nd, 2008

Pfizer Drops Celebrity Pitch in New Lipitor Spots

By Jon Kamp
The Wall Street Journal

As Generics Catch Up, Dr. Jarvik Is Jettisoned From Heart-Drug Ads

Pfizer is set to resume promotion of its blockbuster heart drug Lipitor on television—this time without a celebrity endorsement or expert advice—after a half-year hiatus following claims of misleading advertisements featuring Robert Jarvik, the inventor of an artificial heart.

The new television ad, set to debut Tuesday, features a testimonial from heart-attack survivor John Erlendson, a 58-year-old California talent agent. He didn’t take a cholesterol-fighting drug before his heart attack last year despite a history of high cholesterol, and his ad urges people in similar situations to be more proactive.

In other words, they should talk to their doctors about Lipitor.

The new campaign comes amid pressure on Pfizer’s marquee drug from generic competition, and it follows criticism that prior Lipitor commercials featuring Dr. Jarvik were misleading. The New York-based company pulled the Jarvik ads in February amid criticism, and attention from a U.S. House committee, linked to the fact he isn’t a practicing physician.

This time around, Pfizer felt that using an average guy, someone with a story similar to that of many other baby boomers, struck the right chord.

“When we did testing with consumers, what we found out was John really resonated with them,” said Jim Sage, senior director and leader of the Lipitor marketing team at Pfizer.

Mr. Sage declined to say how much the drug company is spending on the new campaign but said it will have a wide presence on TV and in print. “This ad is going to run for a while on a national basis,” he said.

Lipitor, the world’s best-selling prescription drug, is a so-called statin drug that is typically taken once daily to block an enzyme in the liver that helps make cholesterol. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Lipitor 12 years ago.

The drug had sales of $12.7 billion in 2007, a 2% decline from the prior year. Sales through the first half of 2008 were up 1%, with a strong overseas showing bolstered by the weak dollar.

Lipitor is feeling heat from health plans promoting the use of cheaper, generic versions of other cholesterol drugs. It stands to lose protection against generic copies in the U.S. in 2011, and has been facing a tough market without a big ad campaign for most of the year.

The new spot is visually similar to some of the Jarvik ads, in that it shows Mr. Erlendson in an outdoorsy setting, biking and picnicking by the water with his wife and son—a notable ad with Mr. Jarvik showed a body double rowing a racing scull across a lake. But the new ad takes a different approach, relying on its star’s experience rather than expertise, and his appeal for viewers to avoid his missteps.

“Talk about a wake-up call. I had a heart attack at 57,” Mr. Erlendson says in the commercial’s opening, in which he’s filmed in close-up and black-and-white. “My doctor told me I should have been doing more for my high cholesterol. What was I thinking? But now I trust my heart to Lipitor.” He had tried to tamp down his cholesterol with diet and exercise.

The commercial shifts to the color outdoor scenes—while the drug’s benefits and potential side effects are reviewed by a voice-over—and closes with advice for viewers to discuss their risk and Pfizer’s drug with their doctors.

The phrase “a Lipitor heart to heart” appears on screen near the beginning and end and will be a recurring theme in other ads.

While marking a departure from the Jarvik ads, which leaned on a figure with stature in matters of the heart, Lipitor’s new pitch man is not a total outsider. The talent agent—who will be paid a union scale rate—said he learned of the ad campaign when news of Pfizer’s search for a testimonial subject crossed his desk. They were looking for a heart-attack survivor who took Lipitor, and he knew one who fit the profile.

“I’m hoping my message can get out to people like myself,” Mr. Erlendson said.

Future ads could follow the theme of the new spot and may feature other Lipitor users; Mr. Erlendson could also reprise his role.

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