Merck breaks out pox vaccine spots

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Merck & Co. will convey a serious message today as it breaks an unbranded TV campaign for Varivax, its chickenpox vaccine: a case of the itchy red bumps can be more than just annoying-it can be downright deadly.

True North Communications' FCB Worldwide, New York, created the 30-second spot, which targets mothers of young children. In an effort to gain wide appeal, the commercial tugs heartstrings via four childhood playthings rather than children. "We're enthusiastic about how the creative cuts across age, ethnicity, and race," said Janet Ernst, director of marketing and communication for Merck's vaccine division.

In the spots, a rubber ducky, a teddy bear, a sock monkey and a jack-in-the-box all cry or sniffle because their human friend has chickenpox, while a voice-over warns that hospitalization and, in rare cases, death can occur due to complications of the seemingly harmless ailment.

"What's driving this is that there's still a misinterpretation that chickenpox is an innocuous rite of passage, just a typical childhood illness," said Margie Wainfan, FCB senior VP-group management director, "when, in fact, it can be a really serious disease."

Varivax is the only chickenpox vaccine on the market; that allows Merck to pursue an unbranded campaign. The commercial urges viewers to "talk to your doctor about chickenpox. Call your doctor now."

It also directs them to a FCBi-created Web site, chickenpoxinfo.com. The site never mentions Varivax, but is packed with disease information and personal testimonies that drive home the need to contact a doctor.

Colleen Gowl, exec VP-director of consumer healthcare for FCB, said in this case an education campaign performs a public good "and then we rely on the doctor to recommend what the next point of action should be."

While Varivax has been FDA-approved since 1995, it wasn't until 1999 that Merck began marketing it with a print campaign. Last year the company spent an estimated $8 million to promote the drug, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

In addition to the TV effort, Varivax is distributing marketing materials at daycare centers and doctors' offices. "We've got total synergy in the message," said Ms. Wainfan. "Our rubber ducky has legs."

If it seems as though less people are itching and scratching lately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates chickenpox cases have been cut in more than half since Varivax's approval. Meanwhile, Varivax's U.S. sales have climbed to over $10 million in 2000, according to NDC Health, a research company. Merck declined to disclose Varivax sales worldwide. However, its vaccine and biological division reported sales worldwide of $952 million last year, with Varivax among the top three best sellers.

In what could be further good news for Merck, the CDC is urging states to require chickenpox vaccinations before children enter daycare and schools. The American Association of Pediatrics reports that only 23 states have such requirements and four more will enact them this summer.

Some parents and physicians have voiced concerns over the duration of the vaccine and possible side effects. Yet the AAP and the CDC endorse the shot and studies indicate only minor side effects; in Japan, where the vaccination has been in use since the 1970s, immunity has not been shown to wear off.

Contributing: David Goetzl

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