Yes, They Want This Account

Ad Shops Closely Watch Morning-After OTC Controversy

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"There will be an absolute backlash," said the president of a major health-care agency, of Barr Pharmaceuticals' so-called morning-after pill. "Real fire-and-brimstone shit. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness, dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, and dogs and cats living together."

Then he laughed. "Yeah, I'd go for the account."

According to IMS Health, over-the-counter sales of female contraceptives are a modest $18-million-a-year business. But some analysts believe that could quadruple in two to three years if the FDA approves an OTC version of Barr's Plan B. Last year, prescription sales of Plan B totaled $17 million.

The FDA, criticized for the last two years for stonewalling on an OTC version of Plan B, will meet with Barr this week to discuss the company's request to sell the drug without a prescription to women 18 years of age and older.

The decision has been a political hot potato. The FDA went against the advice of its own advisory committee-something it rarely, if ever, does-as well as the recommendations of the American Medical Association to make it an OTC drug.

Plan B is a set of two pills that can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sex. It was approved by the FDA as a prescription medication in 2003.

A Barr spokeswoman did not return e-mail and phone messages, although she was quoted elsewhere as saying the company was looking forward to meeting with the FDA and that anything beyond that should be considered "premature."


Several agency executives contacted by Advertising Age-all of whom asked not to be identified because of the touchy issue or because they might end up in a pitch for the business-said they believed Barr would conduct an ad campaign, however controversial it might be. But they don't expect the company, which derives most of its revenue from generic drugs, to spend much. Barr spent under $1.2 million in measured media last year on Plan B, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

"I'd take it on," said the president of one agency that deals mostly with physician advertising. "They don't have a ton of cash, but it's worth a lot politically. ... There is a prestige in being able to offer a product like that."

"Agencies are traditionally left-wing," said another health-care-agency president. "Some might say it's not worth the potential hassle. ... If we were the [agency of record], I wouldn't cherry-pick the advertising," the executive said. "I would still advertise in the South and the Bible Belt as much as I would in the Pacific Northwest."

Religious conservatives have contended the OTC version of Plan B promotes promiscuity. Others say anyone could purchase the drug and then hand it over to someone younger than 18.

"Barr has been aggressive and they've been looking to sell more of their product. They have no incentive to enforce these restrictions," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, Washington. "If there was an ad campaign, we'd absolutely monitor that very closely."

Some have likened Plan B to RU-486, the abortion pill. But Barr, the FDA and supporters of Plan B have gone to great lengths to point out that RU-486 terminates pregnancies, while Plan B prevents them.

That message will have to be incorporated in any advertising, albeit with a deft touch.

"If I had the campaign, it would be a message of 'we're all human, we all make mistakes and this is your opportunity,'" said one of the agency presidents. "But any time you get near the 'A' word, you're dead."
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