NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- TBWA's win last week of $170 million of the GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare business comes with what a lot of agencies would consider an unpleasant side effect: the chore of marketing a weight-loss drug that can result in anal leakage.
After a review that began in February, Omnicom Group's TBWA is replacing Havas' Arnold, New York, on GSK's roster for its quit-the-habit franchise, which includes Nicorette, NicoDerm CQ and Commit -- and, perhaps less enviably, FDA-approved, over-the-counter weight-loss aid Alli, which has been on the market since June 2007.
"TBWA has their work cut out for them. This is one of the greatest marketing challenges today," said an industry executive, who added that Alli has to overcome diet-pill stigmas, a challenging economic climate and lazy human nature -- as well as a horrendous side effect. "It doesn't exactly sweeten the deal."
Alli works by preventing some fat absorption, but in order for it to do its business with minimum side effects, consumers need to keep up a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet. If they do, they'll lose 50% more weight than with a diet alone. If they don't, they'll experience a slew of drawbacks that will make day-to-day living just, well, gross -- and perfect material for a skit on "Saturday Night Live." (For proof, check out the "SNL" spoof on Dannon's Activia on Hulu.)
Not that the public needs much reminding. On GSK's consumer website for the product, Myalli.com, comments and questions about the side effects pop out on the community message boards: "My booty is leaking!!" "Constipation??" "Has anyone found a good way to clean your underwear or mattress?"
GSK uses the somewhat euphemistic term "treatment effects" (aka TEs) to describe the nasty side effect. What's more, it almost implies that anal leakage is useful as an indicator that the drug isn't being used correctly. "These effects signal to [consumers] that they have strayed from the Alli guidelines and need to get back on track, enabling them to immediately resume their progress with healthy food choices," said Deborah Bolding, a company spokeswoman.
But those friendly reminders may not bode well for sales. Because Alli works by inhibiting fat absorption, it has side effects similar to those of Olean, Procter & Gamble's brand food additive that worked in the same way. That product peaked in the late 1990s in Frito-Lay's Wow products, among others, but never lived up to sales expectations, in part because of a required package warning that cautioned consumers of abdominal cramping.
It's not exactly a dream ad account, perhaps, but none of this deterred sales of Alli, at least not initially. GSK invested $150 million in marketing during the drug's first six months alone, and Arnold created seven commercials and large in-store displays. At the time, analysts predicted first-year sales between $200 million and $500 million. Indeed, U.S. sales in 2007 totaled $247.2 million, according to the company's year-end annual report. But by the following year's annual report, they had tumbled 53% to $131 million.
So what happened? "Like so many things with weight-loss products, people want a magic pill," said Jim Joseph, managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. "They want the weight to go away without doing all the work." He credited GSK and Arnold with getting the message out from the start that Alli can help consumers lose weight -- but they have to work for it too. But he said he doesn't think the side effect has stunted growth, though it might have stunted mass acceptance. The product can work for the right person.
According to Information Resources Inc., in the most recent 52 weeks, Alli held one-third of the market for weight-control tablets and candy, down 7% from last year. Its dollar sales are down 34% at food, drug and mass merchandisers excluding Walmart, club stores, and gas stations and convenience stores. That's despite some $95.6 million in measured media dedicated to Alli last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence, up from $88.6 million in 2007.
Cost also might have played a role in the sales decline, given the recession. The suggested retail prices for Alli are $39.99 for a 60-capsule starter kit and $59.99 for a 120-count refill.
It's not at all clear whether GSK's decision to switch agencies was related to the sales decline; neither the marketer nor Arnold would comment. Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, which partners with GSK to promote healthful eating and working with a registered dietitian, doesn't fault the marketing, but said it might not have been exactly what consumers wanted to hear. Alli encourages consumers to eat healthfully, she said, and to some consumers expecting a quick weight-loss hit, that can be a disappointment.
Ms. Gans said side effects are minimal as long as consumers watch what they eat. When they eat excess fat, the body's inability to digest the fat creates stomach problems. "Getting a consumer to understand that can be a challenge," she said, despite what she said were commendable efforts on GSK's part to educate consumers on Myalli.com. GSK offers consumers an individualized "online action plan" and supplementary in-package guides that offer tips on healthful eating, among other things.
None of that, of course, will make it any easier on TBWA. Just one day after the agency won the account, the FDA announced it is investigating the potential of orlistat, the active ingredient in Alli, to cause liver toxicity. And the marketing executive said it won't be long before stuff starts hitting the fan: "My sense is that if they don't get it right within 12 months, this brand is going to be on life support."