New Comtan DTC push combines pitch, tribute

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Actor Michael J. Fox's public battle with Parkinson's disease has given Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. the impetus to launch a direct-to-consumer initiative for its Comtan prescription drug.

Seeking to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Mr. Fox's last episode of the ABC hit "Spin City," the drug company ran spread ads in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal on May 24, the day the farewell episode aired. Ads from Integrated Communications, Parsippany, N.J., also appeared in 13 regional papers such as The Miami Herald.

The national spreads included a text-heavy page with information about the drug opposite a tribute to Mr. Fox. Novartis "applauds Michael J. Fox as he takes on the most important role of his career," the tribute read.

GALA IN D.C.

The ad also trumpeted Novartis' support of the fledgling Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. The night before the ads ran and the curtain call aired, Novartis underwrote a gala in Washington attended by entertainment and political stars to launch the foundation.

The sponsorship almost immediately delivered on its goal of raising interest in Comtan: Mr. Fox inquired about the treatment and said he would consult his physician about it. Novartis declined to release spending on the ad campaign.

Unlike other drug marketers, Novartis has not been a heavy spender on the DTC Rx front. Last year, it spent just over $13 million in DTC, according to Competitive Media Reporting, mostly in support of the prescription version of toenail fungus treatment Lamisil and seasickness remedy TransdermScop.

But the Comtan initiative could mark a new phase for the company. The marketer is evaluating the effectiveness of that effort and may launch another in late summer to trumpet data obtained in a drug efficacy study. A campaign for its new irritable bowel syndrome treatment Zelmac could follow later this year.

Comtan, which was approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in October, works to increase the effectiveness of the principal Parkinson's treatment: Sinemet, marketed by Du Pont Pharmaceuticals.

The campaign behind Comtan, which must be used in combination with another drug to treat a serious disease, serves as a further example of how widespread DTC advertising is becoming.

Figures provided by Novartis show some 550,000 patients in the U.S. are on Sinemet, while only 12,000 have tried Comtan. The DTC initiative sought to capture the attention of the hundreds of thousands of non-users, as well as people who care for them and physicians who treat them.

SENSE OF URGENCY

Novartis said so far Comtan has been prescribed mostly in desperation during advanced stages of Parkinson's, where its effectiveness may be limited. The marketer wants physicians to consider the drug during the early stages, where it could provide greater efficacy.

DTC can propel that, said Dennis Dionne, Novartis' director of central nervous system marketing.

"We're trying to instill a sense of urgency," Mr. Dionne said, "to have the patient ask the doctor about Comtan, because that will instill a sense of urgency in the physician."

The DTC initiative also can legitimize the drug, Mr. Dionne said.

"It confirms to physicians that the company's commitment to the product is real," he said. "There's a psychological impact."

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