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The biggest-and most expensive-marketing battle this fall and next year is taking place in the pharmaceutical industry, a clash of titans with Johnson & Johnson/Merck Consumer Pharmaceutical Co. and SmithKline Beecham squaring off for a greater share of the nation's stomach (acid).

Under the guidance of J&J/Merck's Marketing Director Alex Kaufman and SmithKline's VP-Director Marketing Services & Communications Douglas Cox, each company has unleashed $100 million-plus marketing campaigns to introduce Pepcid AC and Tagamet HB, respectively, so-called acid blockers being converted to over-the-counter status. And they need to pull the job off without harming their existing remedies Mylanta and Tums, again respectively.

It's a pitched contest that industry observers guaranteed to induce heartburn, except to media on the receiving end of what could climb to a powerful $300 million in consumer marketing support.

The two have plenty of experience marketing against each other in the $1.12 billion heartburn, acid indigestion and sour stomach remedy category. SmithKline backs Tums, the leading tablet antacid, with $23 million in measured ad spending, while J&J/Merck pours more than $33 million annually in measured media support into Mylanta.

To date, J&J/Merck's Mr. Kaufman's key weapon has been speed. The company wasted no time after winning approval from the Food & Drug Administration in mid-April, getting Pepcid AC on store shelves well before SmithKline's Tagamet won its final FDA nod. By the time Tagamet HB rolled out in August, J&J/Merck's campaign was airing continually and the company was boasting to industry analysts that Pepcid AC already had a 14% share of antacid sales in the nation's drugstores, toppling Tums from the tablet top spot.

That hasn't deterred Mr. Cox, who recognizes that the war for share has only just begun: Glaxo Wellcome will join with Warner-Lambert Co. for the OTC introduction of Zantac 75 (a lower dose version of the world's biggest selling prescription drug), and there are several other products lining up in the pipeline.

Mr. Cox, 52, controls $297 million in marketing spending for SmithKline's major brands, as well as managing market research, promotion planning and media placement, plus worldwide strategic development of OTC pain relief, central nervous system and feminine healthcare medicines.

To him, the key to marketplace victory in antacids, however, is keeping the marketing message to "meaningful points of difference" between products.

"We're far more focused on facts and data, and communicating those points to consumers," he says.

The two rivals have carried their fight into federal court, where both companies have filed lawsuits accusing the other of false advertising.

J&J/Merck claims Pepcid AC offers longer effectiveness-nine hours-compared to Tagamet's six hours. Further, J&J/Merck claims Pepcid AC was preferred over Tagamet HB by eight of 10 participants in a survey of 800 doctors and pharmacists.

SmithKline contests both claims, arguing that Pepcid AC takes at least 90 minutes to become effective, reducing the amount of effective protection to about seven hours.

Despite the finger-pointing, Mr. Cox vows to focus on the primary task-the consumer.

How this battle is resolved is another power play altogether.

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Douglas Cox

SmithKline Beecham

Consumer Brands

Ad budget: $175 million

Agency roster: Grey Advertising; Ogilvy & Mather; Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor.

Career: A 1972 MBA graduate from the Wharton School, Mr. Cox joined Procter & Gamble Co. as a brand assistant and left to join SmithKline Beecham's marketing department in 1974, as a brand manager on Sucrets. He advanced five years later to marketing director-new product development. Named VP-marketing of the personal care division in 1989, he assumed his current post in 1992.

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Alex Kaufman

Johnson &Johnson/Merck Consumer Pharmaceutical Co.

Ad budget: $100 million (Pepcid AC only); Mylanta $33 million.

Agency roster: Compton Partners; Saatchi & Saatchi

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