Big stakes in cold war

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The boom in direct-to-consumer advertising has made fierce pharmaceutical marketing battles more cutthroat than ever.

Last winter's cold war between the marketers of two new flu drugs had the feel and tension of a Coke vs. Pepsi battle.

$55 MILLION IN THREE MONTHS

Glaxo Wellcome with Relenza and Hoffmann-La Roche with Tamiflu combined spent more than $55 million during their first three months on the market to encourage flu victims to do more than drink lots of orange juice and sweat it out.

In the process, the battle saw everything from a former "Seinfeld" persona non grata to a man "living" his life in full view of thousands passing by in Times Square.

The promotions were so creative and pervasive that they raised questions about whether they were working too well. In January, two months into the ad barrage, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration put out an advisory suggesting doctors were overprescribing the drugs in response to the rush of patients who had seen the ads and requested the drugs.

The ads may also have led to the swell of news stories about an allegedly worse-than-normal flu season, which provided Glaxo and Roche with loads of free publicity.

"The advertising created a lot of talk in the media about how much these products help if you have the flu," says Beth Miller, senior VP-director, CME Health, Minneapolis, a unit of agency Campbell Mithun Esty. "It'll be interesting to see in the long run what the impact will be on next year's flu season."

Neither Relenza nor Tamiflu can prevent the onset of the flu. Instead, their marketers claim, the drugs can mitigate the illness's effect if taken within the first two days of onset.

DIFFERENCE IN DELIVERY

The principal difference between the two drugs is in the method of delivery: Relenza is taken using an inhaler, and Tamiflu comes in pill form. The major difference in their ad campaigns came in the use of humor.

Glaxo took a tongue-in-cheek approach with its ads by featuring Wayne Knight, known widely as the annoying "Newman" character on "Seinfeld," as a personification of the vexing flu.

Roche, on the other hand, opted for a more traditional approach, using a woman bed-ridden by the flu as the central character in its TV spots.

"The big difference was [that] we see influenza as a serious disease," says Charles Alfaro, Roche's director of public affairs. "We obviously took a more serious approach focusing on the disease and the disease state."

Glaxo also spent heavily on national broadcast advertising, including sponsoring health vignettes on the Weather Channel and two holiday-themed shows on NBC. Roche, meanwhile, used its proprietary surveillance system to determine where the flu was heaviest at a single point in time and then used local TV in those markets.

Roche relied on guerrilla marketing. It developed a mobile exhibit where an actor spent hours in a see-through studio apartment watching TV and playing videogames. The side of the truck read: "One person in this town who can probably feel safe from the flu. For the rest of us flu sufferers, there's Tamiflu."

Separately, Roche also had "Grandma" characters hand out packets of chicken soup with the Tamiflu name on them.

MOST EFFECTIVE?

Which approach was more effective? Figures from consultancy IMS Health show Tamiflu, which came on the market after Relenza late last fall, posted $34.5 million in U.S. sales through the end of January, compared with $24.9 million for Relenza. IMS' February figures were not yet available.

Of course, more than a DTC campaign contributes to a drug's sales health.

The eagerness of both Roche and Glaxo to spend liberally almost as soon as their respective drugs were launched provides further proof that marketers believe DTC can play a role in jumpstarting a new product, especially for mass conditions such as the flu.

"They both know [that] whoever gets off to the bigger start pays off their investment faster," Ms. Miller says. "[The Relenza/Tamiflu] campaigns are another indication that when you have new drugs for non-life-threatening conditions, DTC is part of the mix. The closer a prescription medication is to an [over-the-counter] counterpart, the more likely [drug companies] will spend like an OTC product on it."

The Relenza-Tamiflu battle is somewhat unusual because these two competing drugs were launched within weeks of each other. The need to give its product an immediate brand identity in a competitive marketplace was likely behind Glaxo's decision to use the recognizable Mr. Knight in its campaign.

"I expected them to spend a lot of money, [and] they did," says Neil Sweig, an analyst with Ryan, Beck & Co. "It was the beginning of something that is important to them, and they want to stay ahead of the pack."

Like the flu, Mr. Knight's "Seinfeld," character "Newman," "shows up at the worst time," says Scott Carouge, creative director at Relenza agency Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.

In its TV spots, Mr. Knight, playing "The Flu," shows up at a couple's abode and disrespectfully makes himself at home. The spot ends with Mr. Knight laughing as a man makes soup to fight the flu. "Soup," Mr. Knight says sarcastically. "Yea, that'll work."

Roche also considered using humor in its campaign before opting for the more serious tone.

"We explored humor as well as empathy," says Clark Frankel, exec VP-creative director at Tamiflu's agency, Young & Rubicam, New York. "Empathy seemed to be the one direction that played out very truthfully."

Contributing: Laura Petrecca.

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