July 17th, 2005

Web Sites New Twist in Celebrity Drug Ads

By Linda A. Johnson
Associated Press

Like millions of women going through menopause, actress Cheryl Ladd quit taking hormone pills after research showed risks of breast cancer, stroke and heart attack.

But after months of horrible hot flashes and disrupted sleep, the star of the 1970s TV series “Charlie’s Angels” says she was so miserable, she resumed taking a hormone drug after consulting her doctor. Now she’s doing ads urging women to talk to their doctors or visit a Web site.

The site is sponsored by Wyeth, maker of leading hormone replacement pills Prempro and Premarin, and Wyeth’s logo appears in the TV ad. Ladd’s subtle promotion is the latest twist in the 7-year-old practice of celebrities promoting drugs, whether they use them or not: Rather than pitch a specific medicine, the celebrities make you “aware” of suffering you might have overlooked and usually point you to a Web site sponsored by a company selling a treatment for that condition.

Such ads don’t have to mention any drug risks.

From sports figures like Jack Nicklaus to movie stars like Sylvester Stallone, dozens of famous people have been on TV in recent years urging consumers to ask their doctors for specific prescription drugs for everything from depression to cancer.

Now, more of those celebrities want to make you “aware” of problems you might not know about or even have. Experts say the shift is because of concerns over medication safety and criticism from medical and consumer groups that ads minimize drug risks. They also point to talk in Congress about new regulations, possibly banning consumer ads until a drug has been on sale for a year, allowing time for rare side effects to emerge.

“Definitely there has been an increase in spending” on disease awareness ads this year, said Stu Klein, president of Quantum, a health care advertising company in Parsippany, N.J. “What 2005 will probably show is that percentage going up.”

Ad spending monitor TNS Media notes consumer drug ad spending, which totaled $4.4 billion in 2004, actually dipped 1.5 percent in the first five months of this year, compared to that period last year—the first time it hasn’t gone up. But the percentage of disease awareness ads that don’t mention a specific product doubled to 4.6 percent of all network TV drug ads from January through April, said TNS research director Jon Swallen.

Ladd, 53, said she is proud to be part of Wyeth’s campaign. Two ads she filmed that point viewers to Wyeth’s site, http://www.TalkingtoYourDoctor.com,will run on news and other programs favored by older women.

“I so believe in the message,” she told The Associated Press by telephone before kicking off a series of TV interviews last week. “I love that the campaign is just about asking for information.”

Ladd said she and many friends were confused and worried about hormone replacement drugs. Her doctor recommended she take a low-dose combination estrogen-progestin pill. Ladd won’t say which one.

“I’m sleeping. I’m just feeling so much better,’” Ladd said. “It’s just given me my life back.”

Neither Ladd nor Wyeth will say what she’s paid.

Celebrity endorsement fees usually are not disclosed, but they average about $200,000 to $500,000 and can reach $1 million, according to agents and advertising officials. Several companies specialize in connecting celebrities with health care companies, including Celebrity Connection and Spotlight Health, both of Los Angeles, and Premier Entertainment Consulting of Essex Fells, N.J.

Such drug ads began with TV morning show host Joan Lunden’s 1988 endorsement of seasonal allergy drug Claritin, according to Klein at Quantum, which produced that ad.

The sea change probably came when Sen. Bob Dole did ads urging men with impotence—now called “erectile dysfunction”—to get help. The ads were sponsored by Viagra maker Pfizer. Race car drivers and jocks have since done ads for Viagra and competing drugs.

Cycling champ Lance Armstrong has done cancer awareness ads for Bristol-Myers Squibb, which makes three drugs that cured him of testicular cancer. Even entertainment legends Lauren Bacall, Julie Andrews and Kirk Douglas have appeared in ads.

Olympians Dorothy Hamill and Bruce Jenner both promoted arthritis blockbuster Vioxx—since voluntarily recalled by Merck & Co. after research showed long-term use increases risk of heart attack and stroke.

Some stars have been criticized for praising a particular drug during talk show appearances without disclosing that they were being paid.

“Celebrities go on TV and they make people feel this drug is the cure-all,” said Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor at New York University School of Medicine, who notes that only the United States and New Zealand allow direct-to-consumer drug ads. “It puts all the pressure on the patient to go to the doctor and ask for the drug, completely unrelated to whether they need it.”

Research shows doctors comply with such requests 85 percent of the time, said Mark Bard, president of the marketing and information firm Manhattan Research.

He said disease awareness ads work particularly well for a company whose drug is the leader in a category, because it is sure to gain sales from new patients seeking treatment.

The Food and Drug Administration is encouraging such ads. In January 2004, the agency issued draft guidelines—recommendations without legal force—that say companies don’t have to detail risks in disease information ads and “reminder ads” that mention a drug’s name but don’t discuss its benefits.

“We think disease awareness commercials are very beneficial. There’s a number of untreated diseases in the United States ... which can have devastating effects if they go untreated,” said Thomas Abrams, director of FDA’s division of drug marketing, advertising and communications.

Abrams said FDA has been reviewing consumer and industry comment on the guidelines and will issue final recommendations later this year. Meanwhile, FDA has been cracking down on misleading drug ads, increasing the number of warning letters urging a company to pull an ad—from four or five a year to 13 in the first five months of 2005.

Bill Weldon, Johnson & Johnson CEO and chairman of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, told members of the trade group a few months ago the consumer ads had “drawn fire from a number of quarters” and urged more responsible ads.

He said consumer ads must recommend talking with a doctor, balance drug risks and benefits better, and stress only taking the dose needed.

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