Take a heaping spoof-ful

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Prescription drug ads have enjoyed three years of abundant TV airtime, thanks to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's landmark move to loosen restrictions over how pharmaceutical companies can advertise directly to consumers. The ads, widely viewed as a contributor to the record profits the industry has enjoyed, have been a boon for late night comedians, too, as they've wedged their way into popular culture.

With Bob Dole stumping for Viagra and Xenical's offer to help fight obesity as long as one doesn't mind a little havoc-wreaking in the bathroom, the ads have proven easy to parody. So much so, some feel some feel as if Mark McGwire's been set loose against a pinata.

Since they are so pervasive, very similar in look and feel to each other and, above all, notable for their jarring list of potential side effects, the ads have formed the genesis for spoof campaigns plugging Energizer batteries, online brokerage site E-Trade Group and financial news Web address TheStreet.com.

"You see so many of them that it's gotten to the point that they become a target," said Jerry Gentile, creative director at Energizer agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif. "The more people are familiar with the genre, the easier it is to spoof it."


So, in a backhanded way, the spoofing of DTC serves as further evidence that the booming category has arrived as one of the most recognizable and most widespread on TV. Last year, TV spending on DTC ads grew by 70% to $1.1 billion over 1998, according to consultancy IMS Health.

"It shows the pervasiveness of DTC in the lexicon of advertising," said Beth Miller, director of CME Health, Minneapolis, who follows the category. "Five years ago, no one would have spoofed these ads because there weren't enough of them to spoof."

The spoof ads variably mock the look and feel of DTC ads, which often feature smiley, happy people seemingly cured after taking a product; the significant promises the ads appear to make; and the alarming recitation of possible side effects the ads are required to list by law. On a different level, the ads also parody the fact many DTC spots are often indistinguishable from one another because the FDA requirements tend to limit creative options.

Spoof artists along with comedians certainly have had a lot to get their creative juices flowing: Former presidential candidate Bob Dole talking about erectile dysfunction, spots for bladder control drugs, a run of ads for allergy drugs seemingly dominated by images of green grass. Then there's the 1999 campaign for Hoffman-La Roche's obesity drug Xenical, where the side effects listing included "gas or oil with discharge" and "bowel movements -- an urgent need to have them and an inability to control them."

"What's prompted a lot of this has been the Xenical campaign," said Julie Kline, a product manager for consultancy Scott-Levin, which measures the effectiveness of DTC ads. "That had pretty severe side effects. Jay Leno was making jokes about it."


For years, TBWA has parodied ad trends in its campaign for Energizer Co.'s batteries. The spots lure viewers into thinking they are about to see yet another dull commercial for (fill in the blank) fast-food, 1-800 collect calls, political candidates, etc. Then, the Energizer bunny saves the day by marching across the screen.

The latest Energizer flight features a spot mocking ads for hair-growth products such as Merck & Co.'s Propecia. A man sits in a pool while he tells the camera, "When I first started losing my hair, I panicked. Then, I heard about new Growzan and now my hair is thicker than ever." Just before the bunny comes wading into the scene, the man turns to the side to reveal hair on his back worthy of a zoo animal.

"We sort of accentuated or exaggerated the claims to a humorous point of view, hopefully," TBWA/Chiat/Day's Mr. Gentile said.

Ads for TheStreet.com and E-Trade take a similar tack by luring the viewer to believe at first that the spot is for a drug, then launching into the spoof.

Two of the three spots in TheStreet's new campaign -- which so far have run only in the New York market but soon may move to others -- follow that pattern. One of the ads could be a disease-awareness spot for an Alzheimer's treatment, such as Pfizer's Aricept; the other takes dead aim at Viagra, also marketed by Pfizer.

The ersatz Alzheimer's spot features a man wandering around without direction, performing offbeat tasks. The voice-over then says, "It affects millions of Americans each day. Loss of memory, disorientation. These symptoms can only mean one thing."

Then, comes the shock: "You've got headupthebuttitis, the disease of blindly investing your money without checking TheStreet.com first."


TheStreet's Viagra spoof begins with a happy, middle-age couple who seem to love life as they ride a bike together and play peek-a-boo around a tree. "Brad and Susan are in their 50s," voice-over says. "But they're still carrying on like teen-agers." Then, the scene cuts to the couple in bed and the voice-over continues: "However, there's one area where Brad's performance has slowed down. This happens to a lot of men. Yes, it's that problem."

Enter humor. Viewers are told Brad made some investment decisions without the assistance of TheStreet.com.

"You have this advertising where I don't know anyone who likes it and it's at such huge weight levels that they're sick of it," said Ellis Verdi, president of TheStreet.com's agency DeVito Verdi, New York. "It's a nice jumping off point for an advertisement because everyone has a mutual distaste for it."

E-Trade's spoof spot goes after the rash of allergy drug ads done over the years for products such as Schering-Plough's Claritin and Aventis' Allegra, among others. The commercial shows a young woman frolicking in the grass and sniffing flowers. The voice-over promises a similar allergy-free existence for users of a drug called "Nozulla."

But, the voice-over then says of the made-up product, "Nozulla may cause the following symptoms: itchy rashes, full-body hair loss, projectile vomiting . . ."

The spot, from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, goes on to show an investor watching the Nozulla spot on his TV. As the frightening side effects are listed, he moves immediately to sell his shares in Nozulla manufacturer Gene Enterprises. The message: E-Trade can be a vehicle for quick investment action.

"True to our brand's character, we thought it would be a great opportunity to poke fun at a whole genre of advertising, which I think a lot of consumers are pretty surprised by," said Michael Sievert, E*Trade's chief sales and marketing officer.

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