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Merck’s Madagascar Marketing Mess

OK, it’s time to haul the marketing guys back in again. Via Pharmalot, I see that Merck, in its capacity now as Merck Schering-Plough, is promoting Claritin via a tie-in with the kid’s movie “Madagascar 3”. That is certainly the first time I’ve ever heard of a drug company co-promoting with a children’s movie (or, actually, any movie at all, although I’ve probably missed an example or two).
And if these reports are true, the promotion is rather extensive, in an eye-rolling cringe-inducing way:

“. . .customized Madagascar 3 packaging for both types of Claritin; a “Free Movie Ticket Offer” promotion with a Claritin purchase at Walgreens; the Claritin Facebook page offers a free, downloadable Madagascar Inspired Circus Activity Guide and a Madagascar themed “Circus Stackers” game; eight activity guides for free download from Facebook, and product packaging that included “5 Free Stickers” of Madagascar characters.
Merck also initiated “Children’s Claritin Mom Crew” members to hold Madagascar-themed viewing parties. Mom Crew members are bloggers who have been selected by Merck to be product endorsers, the letter states. [The Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern], in fact, says it ran a Google search using the terms “Claritin mom crew Madagascar.” Of the first 40 search results, 31 were unique accounts of Children’s Claritin Madagascar viewing parties held by Claritin Mom Crew members from across the country.

Well, I just did that same search, and believe me, it’s no longer the case. The Pharmalot post is now the first search result, and most of the others are unfavorable publicity in the same vein. But there certainly are accounts from the (excuse me while I hold my nose) “Claritin Mom Crew” in the results, although I’m having a lot of trouble believing that these are real blog posts that emerged from spontaneous human action. This really smells like a planned campaign, with close attention paid to phrasing, linking, and other search engine optimization techniques. For one thing, I note that every mention of this thing is carefully capitalized, and there’s even a standard Twitter hashtag.
But maybe my ideas of “spontaneous human action” need to be a bit broader. There’s been a long-standing technique of spreading endorsements via compensated blog posts (money, coupons, discounts, affiliate percentages), and there are surely many here’s-what-I-do-with-my-kids sites that exist partly (or wholly) to reap the benefits from all these promotions. I note that at least one of these blogs is now feeling the backlash from all the negative publicity in this case, and they’re probably not alone. (Roll with it, I say – after all, think of all the extra traffic you’re getting!)
But this whole promotion is a rotten idea, although I suppose that you’d have to be a marketing whiz for that not to at least cross your mind. How anyone could have planned it and launched it without realizing that this backfire reaction was exactly what would surely happen is beyond me. And sure, maybe they’re going to sell some more children’s Claritin, briefly. But how much more, compared to all the negative PR? Compared to headline after headline that makes Merck look like the sort of organization that has no problem using cartoon character tie-ins to sell histamine receptor antagonists to kids?
Hey, why not? After all, Merck – or at least their marketing department – clearly is the sort of organization that has no problem with that at all. Own it guys – stand up and be proud. I’m sure you can manage it.

54 comments on “Merck’s Madagascar Marketing Mess”

  1. Gasp. “Madagascar 3” is not just a kid’s movie, Sir. It’s wholesome enjoyment for adults too.
    Although I can clearly see Pfizer marketing their next ED drug with the latest steamy thriller.

  2. petros says:

    Don’t forget that these days Claritin is an over the counter drug, and such promotions are not so unusual for consumer products.
    In its days as a Rx drug it was also the most heavily promoted drug by DTC advertising, which helped it to multi billion dollar annual revenues

  3. Derek Lowe says:

    Petros, it certainly is OTC. But in the US, the Federal Trade Commission has restrained companies from using child-focused marketing for any medicinal or health-related products. There are, for example, vitamins made for children, and they often have cartoon characters or funny shapes and colors. But they can’t be pitched right to the kids and marketed like a toy would be.
    This campaign goes even further – for most people, vitamins are in a different category than pharmaceuticals (although Senator Orrin Hatch certainly did his part to blur the distinction, what with all the nonsensical “dietary supplements” being marketed under his legislation’s protection). But Claritin is in no way a dietary supplement, of course. It’s a drug, formerly a prescription one, with a defined mechanism of action and a defined patient population (and when I worked for Schering-Plough, it certainly helped pay my salary). This is the first time in the US market, as far as I can recall, that an actual pharmaceutical (from an actual pharmaceutical company) has been marketed in this style, and a lot of people seem to be having the same reaction as I did – a general feeling that some sort of line has been crossed. . .

  4. Rick Wobbe says:

    I remember being proud to work at Merck in the early 90s. That memory is getting very dim very fast.

  5. Jon says:

    I’m a little surprised it hasn’t happened already. The already mentioned possibility of Viagara ads pitched with romance movies. Chantix ads paired with rereleases of old movies with people smoking like chimneys. Marketing of the latest oncology drugs with one of those feel-good overcoming cancer storyline movies. And hopefully the latest attempt at improving insulin delivery giving discounts on Wilford Brimley movies.
    Someone has to be able to come up with better ideas than I just did.

  6. Jim says:

    Derek – thanks for the clarification about the FTC regulations. It never quite smelled right, but I couldn’t come up with a rational argument why they shouldn’t do it. If Joe Camel was deemed to be aimed towards kids, the lion, zebra, hippo and penguins certainly will be placed in the same category.

  7. Jon says:

    I never understood how Joe Camel was supposed to be targeted at kids, and I’m squarely in the demographic that was supposedly advertised to. Then again, I also never understood how “Sorry I’m late. My pool game ran long at the jazz club.” (stolen from an episode of Futurama) was supposed to attract kids either.

  8. luysii says:

    Nonetheless, the stock hit new highs today and yesterday. Life isn’t fair.
    It gets worse. A few days ago, I made more money buying the stock the day before it went ex-dividend and selling it the next, than I did going out at night and taking care of 40 (forty) stroke or trauma patients. How socially useful is that?

  9. Morten G says:

    Coca Cola is sponsoring the Olympics.

  10. petros says:

    Thanks for clarifying the restrictions.
    Maybe the marketing guys are trying to generate another large fine, given how many major pharma has clocked up for misselling Rx drugs. All those billions that could have gone on R&D!

  11. Am I Lloyd peptide says:

    luysii: Maybe you should sell your stock before anacetrapib hits the market? With the recent failure of Lilly’s recent HDL drug, the whole idea of preventing heart disease by increasing HDL levels is being questioned.
    A pity. At one point Merck was not only a great company but a good one. Now it’s neither.

  12. Hap says:

    I guess marketing is assuming that a good reputation is useless it’s monetizable. At least it is until you don’t have one, or unless you actually want to get a drug approved (which is rare, lately, but still…)

  13. luysii says:

    #11: The point was that I made all that money owning the stock for just over 24 hours.
    Back in the day, in gratitude, Merck gave Max Tischler, one of their great chemists, so much money that he sponsored the yearly Max Tischler lecture at Harvard which was still going strong in the 60’s. I don’t know about today.

  14. DCRogers says:

    Ah, just like the good-ol’ days, when my parents dispensed daily Flintstones Vitamins when we were well, and orange-flavored St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children when we were ailing. So Madagascar Claritin is just a return to past form.
    Wake me when they release Super Mario Adderall with Princess Peach flavoring.

  15. Dave says:

    Note that Loratadine (the generic name for Claritin) went off patent in 2002, the same time that it became over the counter in the US [1]. The prices dropped dramatically as it became generic. I’m sure that has cut into the profits rather incredibly. So, it’s not too surprising that some marketing genius has implemented a new advertising program (Actually, I’m surprised it took this long!). The only question is whether there will be enough backlash to negate the effectiveness of the campaign. Then, again, what was that quote from P. T. Barnum?
    [1] It was over the counter in Canada years before. And, it wasn’t unheard of for people to become drug smugglers by bringing back quantities!

  16. Homer says:

    The Simpsons featured “Flintstones chewable morphine” years ago!

  17. Legacy Merck Guy says:

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  18. JC says:

    Didn’t really like 1 & 2. I think we will be going to go see ‘Brave’ instead.

  19. Currently unemployed says:

    I always felt that the antonio banderas voiced bumble bee they used a few years back to advertise their products was aimed at kids and people who bought honey nut cheerios.

  20. johnnyboy says:

    Maybe I’ve got this one wrong, but isn’t Claritin the anti-histamine that really didn’t have much efficacy, but that became a big moneymaker anyway because of the massive marketing campaign ? This would be more of the same, I suppose.

  21. Lyle Langley says:

    I guess I’m in the minority here (maybe it’s due to the way I’ve marketed and sold monorails previously); but what’s the big deal here? Does anyone really think kids are running out and buying the medicine because of this? Are kids really buying Claritin? They are marketing to the parents and if they can get a free movie ticket with the purchase of Claritin, rather than say, OTC Allegra, so what? I doubt they are creating some sort of kiddy blackmarket for this. Meh, is what I say to this.

  22. pete says:

    It’d be one thing if Claritin (or generic loratadine) was an effective drug, but my experience as an observant parent & scientist is that it’s mostly a pricey boondoggle.
    But if Merck S-P were promoting fentanyl lollipops with each movie ticket, then I’d really pay attention.

  23. Lyle Langley says:

    That is the funny thing about Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec – they each work for ~30% of patients. That was the big rub when the first one was coming off patent (Claritin I think, which they tried to extend with Clarinex, the active ingredient) – was that payers were going to stop paying for the other two and allergy sufferers were irate because not everyone is helped with one drug.
    But, still, there is nothing to this story and I’m really surprised that Dr. Low would pick this up – Pharmalot, of course, I would expect nothing less from that site, but this site… Oh the mighty have fallen…

  24. Lyle Langley says:

    Sorry, Dr. Lowe (not Low). I was not trying some play on words….

  25. Derek Lowe says:

    “Lyle”, it’s unfortunately not just me picking up this story, as a look at Google News will show. My problem with this is that the drug industry really should be avoiding chances to look like sleazy marketeers, rather than embracing the chance to risk lots of bad press for (relative) pennies.
    Merck sells around $2 billion/year of “consumer care” products (out of about $12 billion total sales). Claritin is probably $300 to $400 million of that (the WSJ had a 2010 estimate of 400, and the company has said that sales have fallen off a bit since then, although it’s still the leading OTC antihistamine). And I have no idea what fraction of that is the children’s version – could it even be as high as $100 million? So, how much would you expect sales to pick up (or, perhaps, not decline) based on this promotion with a summer kid’s movie? 10% seems like the sort of effect that anyone would be very pleased with for a single advertising campaign.
    So, ballpark figure of maybe $10 million, with what I think are some very generous assumptions. One half of one per cent of Merck’s OTC sales. 0.08% of total sales. And all it takes to realize that windfall is the willingness to look sleazy! Who could pass up such an opportunity?

  26. cookingwithsolvents says:

    So called “astroturfing” has been around for a while now. It’s been so successful in politics/policy (also see: yelp) that I’m surprised it hasn’t been used more for other advertising.
    That said, the creative marketing sites are pretty cool models. I’ve only done one but I threw a “house party” (dot com) for windows 7. They gave me a free copy of the OS, a bunch of party favors/napkins/etc, reusable shopping bags that I STILL use, and about 10 of my friends came over and had a fun night. It was a good deal and we are geeky enough that people actually played with the OS for a while before the booze kicked in and my newly-win7 laptop was resigned to mp3 player. 🙂
    I’d gladly do one for windows 8 and some other products for equally good swag.

  27. Jim says:

    I’m beginning to wonder if ticket sales of Madagascar 3 will be hurt due to their association with the pharmaceutical industry.
    Also, we might be missing Merck’s genius here. Give kids free movie tickets when their 6 years old, build their loyalty to Merck, and you have a consumer for Gardasil locked up in 8 years!

  28. I have a teenage daughter who needs "creative" marketing from Durex says:

    cookingwithsolvents #26,
    are they your friends, or are they a marketing fodder that you sold to fucken Microsoft for $150 (or whatever win7 msrp is)?
    Plus, win7? Ewwww. If you are selling your friends out, at least you could have gone for a golden jail (Apple) instead of pewter.

  29. I Work in Pharma Marketing says:

    … and even I think this is a horrible idea. Obviously, it’s the parents, not the kids, who will make the purchasing decisions, but why pitch drugs to children in the first place? Cereal, fast-food, and other companies are already generating ill will among some consumers for marketing directly to kids.
    Now how are we, with a straight face and fingers not crossed behind our backs, ever going to tell the kiddies to “just say no”?

  30. Algirdas says:

    Derek, Lyle
    you appear to be talking past each other. Lyle clearly does not consider what happened as sleazy in the least. And if it is not sleazy, then it must be OK – even if the net gain is $1.00 for Merck.
    I, however, consider it sleazy.
    Lyle, should people buy pharmaceuticals because they think about which medication is right for them, discuss it with their doc, and try to make a rational decision to the best of their (limited) ability? Or because they have been conditioned to like a certain brand due to happy childhood association with a funny movie? Many people dislike DTC drug advertisement (for good reasons), but one can make a strong free speech argument for allowing drug ads to adults. Even if said ads have little information and a lot of appeal to emotion. Fine. But the FTC regulations restricting ads directed to children are there for a reason, and they are correct. Going against them, like Merck did, is sleazy. Manipulation of immature people for commercial gain is immoral.
    Second reason why this is sleazy is all those “mom crews”. The attempt there is to pretend that this is some kind of “grass-roots” or “viral” support for Claritin. But in fact it is an orchestrated marketing campaign, motivated merely by profit. I thought Derek made this argument clear in the 3rd paragraph of his post, but seems like it needs reinforcement.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Neil Young sums”>”>sums it upthere.
    I miss 100 tablet bottles of clemastine fumarate back when I lived down the road from Geneva Labs in Colorado and could get it King Soopers OTC for $15.99…

  32. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, broken link. Video is called “Piece of Crap”, and can readily be found on You Tube. It’s quite entertaining, much more so than the antihistamine marketing moms’ mob.

  33. Lemur King says:

    I like to move it, move it…

  34. Ken says:

    It was Roche’s CETP inhibitor that failed, not Lilly’s.
    Why I am doubtful of the potential for HDL drugs in general to reduce CV events, the phase II data on anacetrapib and dalcetrapib are different enough that Roche’s drug biting it doesn’t necessary ensure failure for Merck.

  35. cookingwithsolvents says:

    I’ll take your comment as serious and not a troll.
    How the F did I sell out my friends by having microsoft provide some napkins for a party that started off with nearly everyone (~7/11 people) looking at the differences between win7 and win7beta that we had installed on virtual machines, extra boxes, or multi-boot configs? Most of the night consisted of beer, grilling, and chilling. Same as we would at any other party.
    I am guessing from your mac comment that you lack the technical knowledge to actually appreciate genuine interest in computing. I am a wet chemist PI but have tinkered with computers since the TI-99/4a. I still do some and currently run win7, ubuntu, winserver2k3, andoid 2.3 (phone), android 3.x (tablet) and have VMs running winXP+vista (old science software compatibility). Hell, the win8 release preview email invitation arrived in my inbox yesterday (ironically enough).
    Back OT, I was not trying to draw parallels between my experience and marketing drugs, OTC or prescription, to kids. That is kinda creepy.

  36. mOmO says:

    Brilliant! They are starting to hook em’ even earlier than I thought!
    Soon Winnie-The-Pooh will be hawking anti-obesity pills!
    But drugs like us come in pairs-once you have a Nation of 6 y.o. s running around with screaming headaches from the side-effects the Moms can then go and dose them with flavored-Tylenol! Then when their livers fail….!
    The cycle of life-redefined!

  37. Legacy SGP Dude says:

    Merck is so desperately trying to earn any money these days, anything goes. No new drugs in the pipeline, gotta try “innovative” ideas in marketing.

  38. Thomas says:

    I remember watching “The Color Purple” with movie tickets my father got because he was a psychiatrist.
    In the Netherland (and probably all of Europe) drug promotion to consumers is indirect, i.e. symptom awareness, “Did you know that … can be treated contact your doctor.” Now for dietary supplements, they make the wildest claims and some people trust them more than the real stuff.
    Then again in Yemen, there are huge posters outside promoting Viagra “for a better life”…

  39. Carbazole says:

    FYI- Roche used the movie “Happy feet” to promote Tamiflu a few years back

  40. Lyle Langley says:

    “Derek”, Algirdas–
    No matter how much you want to complain, this is a non-story. And yes, “Derek” a search of google shows that you were not the only one picking up the story; that was my point. It’s covered in other “news” sites like Pharmalot (and I use that term VERY loosely for that site) – so I was surprised you picked it up because it really is not news. I guess you ran out of “Things you won’t work with”? I understand this web site is turning into CafePharma where it is simply a place to come and bitch about the Pharma industry – but I didn’t think it would get there this fast.

  41. Hap says:

    Marketing’s about changing people’s minds. Merck-SP certainly did that with this – only problem is that they changed the minds of people negatively. Even if those people don’t buy the product, they may be some of the same people to judge other of their products approvable at some point, or to judge whether one of their other marketing campaigns was legal or not, or whether pharma is good target for health care cost cutting (either by gov’t or insurers). Little acorns grow into big oaks.
    If the story doesn’t matter, than Merck wasted some money on marketing that they could have better spent. Unfortunately, that’s the best-case scenario.

  42. newnickname says:

    Katherine Heigl (blonde doctor on Grey’s Anatomy) starred in a movie ‘comedy’ about Big Pharma marketing called “Side Effects (2005)”. Close up the spaces: /title/ tt0438427/
    Stephen S. Hall wrote the “The Claritin Effect: Prescription for Profit” expos’e in the NY Times Magazine, March 3, 2011. Google gets you the full article.

  43. metaphysician says:

    Put me down as one of the people quite grateful for claritine ( well, desloratidine, I don’t buy the name brand if I can avoid it ). Other antihistamines work for me, but its the only stuff I’ve found that doesn’t knock me out. Even the allegedly daytime stuff pretty much incapacitates me for a day.
    Also, what is with the sudden outbreak of scare quotes?

  44. MoMo says:

    Lyle-you said “a place to come and bitch about the Pharma industry ”
    What rock have you been living under? Are you a paid troll for the Claritin industry?
    This is America- all news outing the weakness and feebleness of our citizenry and its cheesy capitalists is welcome- that way we can stay away from you or douse with red paint, so you can readily identified and monitored.
    Think of the Children Lyle, its all for the Children.

  45. Lyle Langley says:

    Seriously MoMo? CafePharma was the one site where people came and whined about the industry. Then Pharmalot starting getting into the action and it’s circling the drain in that respect. In the Pipeline used to be above the childish fray that is CP/Pharmalot. Alas, ITP, Pharmalot and CP have devolved into the same site.
    As a medicinal chemist formerly employed by Big Pharma I have no lost love for the industry, but do we have to pick “news” that isn’t “news”? I know, all the Pharma and previous Pharma scientists on this site know so much more than those MBA’s and if only they were allowed to run the industry it would turn around in a heartbeat…

  46. MoMo says:

    I hear you Lyle- whiners are everywhere- doers not so much
    But I bet it was an MBA that said “lets put Claritin in the hands of guerrilla marketer Moms without regard to the safety of children that don’t need Claritin”
    That should trigger rage in all, and if it does n’t you are probably a Claritin salesman.
    Get out the Red paint.

  47. Vader says:

    I don’t know how to put this tactfully, so I’m going to go ahead and put it bluntly:
    Marketing is done by communications majors, and kids major in communications because they aren’t bright enough to major in STEM or law.
    The part I don’t understand is why folks with money at stake hire marketers to begin with, unless it’s that seeing the occasional wildly successful marketing campaign leaves them afraid *not* to use marketers. In other words, marketing is a kind of Pascal’s wager.
    The problem with *that* hypothesis, in turn, is that the money spent on marketing is just too much for a Pascal’s wager.

  48. Lyle Langley says:

    MoMo – thanks for keeping the usual internet banter alive and well. Your using the tried and true, “if you don’t agree with me, then you must be X” is classic. You are correct, whiners are everywhere – your post proves it. Well played, sir (or madam)!
    No, not a Claritin salesman – see above (I do, however, specialize in Monorails).

  49. MoMo says:

    Im not a whiner, Lyle, I get things done in science and chemistry.
    Unfortunately I have to deal with the same forces in science that everyone else encounters- Money, funding and Greed.
    That’s why I keep Red Paint handy- so I can mark the miscreants we all are surrounded by.
    Makes them easier to spot in a crowd.
    Monorails! Be careful! They can cause arrythmias and drain your bank account at the same time!

  50. Lyle Langley says:

    Thnaks, again, for the humor MoMo. It’s my experience people touting how much of a doer they are on the internets, are in fact, the whiners. Especially those that go around with “Red Paint” (really, are you 13?) to point out those around us – because we all know your opinion is the most important. Nice try, again. Now back to the whining – or Red Painting!

  51. MoMo says:

    Alright Lyle- I tried being nice and I see it doesn’t work. Lets not finger point about whining and you are right, this is an anonymous blog with anonymous comments by anonymous comments. Red paint won’t work on you, as you sound like some pro-Pharma shlump who survives by being a yes-man.
    While I usually mark bears in VT with red oil-paint to track their movements, the smart ones lick it off- just like you. No, I’d have to tatoo or carve a big X on your forehead to permanantly warn the others a moron was in their presence.

  52. MoMo says:

    Alright Lyle- I tried being nice and I see it doesn’t work. Lets not finger point about whining and you are right, this is an anonymous blog with anonymous comments by anonymous posters. Red paint won’t work on you, as you sound like some pro-Pharma shlump who survives by being a yes-man.
    While I usually mark bears in VT with red oil-paint to track their movements, the smart ones lick it off- just like you. No, I’d have to tatoo or carve a big X on your forehead to permanantly warn the others a moron was in their presence.

  53. Lyle Langley says:

    “Red paint won’t work on you, as you sound like some pro-Pharma shlump who survives by being a yes-man.”
    Again, thanks for the humor, MoMo (and by maintaining your constant whine – I’ll use red paint on you, that will show you, because I’m immature. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll take my toys and go home.)
    How, again, am I a “yes man”? By saying this is a non-story – which it is – and disagreeing with you – a self-professed doer of science and chemistry? The internets win again!

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