New Merck drug plays catch-up

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Merck & Co. is expected to launch a $30 million campaign for arthritis drug Vioxx today as the company plays catch up to market leader Celebrex.

The Vioxx ads received U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval last week, clearing the way for the TV and print campaign to launch, according to one executive familiar with the marketer's plan. The highly anticipated direct-to-consumer effort was expected to break earlier this fall, but the FDA approval process apparently caused the delay.

PRINT ADS THIS WEEK

Print advertising is slated to run in this week's U.S. News & World Report and possibly USA Today.

The TV component could follow as early as next month.

If not, it will likely roll out shortly after the New Year. The marketer is expected to use 60-second ads, likely to describe Vioxx's benefits as well as possible side effects.

DDB Worldwide, New York, won the account last year. Merck's total marketing budget for Vioxx could reach $50 million.

A Merck spokesman declined to comment, as did DDB.

The Vioxx ad launch comes several months after co-marketers Monsanto and Pfizer began advertising their arthritis drug Celebrex without competitive ads.

Celebrex has enjoyed unparalleled success, with more than $1 billion in sales in ten months on the market, surpassing Pfizer's Viagra as the most successful new drug ever.

"DTC doesn't really behave any differently than consumer package goods," said Peter Johnsen, VP at consultancy Market Measures.

"If a marketer is there exclusively for any period of time, they build up an advantage."

NEW CELEBREX CREATIVE

Monsanto and Pfizer, however, could have been more aggressive in advertising Celebrex.

The co-marketers ran TV ads for only four weeks last spring, then halted advertising during the summer before moving to a national print campaign in September.

A Monsanto spokesman said the company opted to concentrate its resources on educating physicians about the drug.

He said new Celebrex creative could come next year.

The Vioxx campaign is expected to be more wide-reaching from the start, with national broadcast TV and cable spots and print ads in weekly magazines and national newspapers, said executives familiar with the marketer's plans.

Merck also had hoped to include monthly magazines in its launch, but the FDA delay caused it to miss deadlines for issues this year.

Last week, Merck altered its Vioxx Web site (vioxx.com) to include content targeted at U.S. consumers, suggesting the marketer is set to ramp up its DTC promotions. Until then, the site was directed at healthcare professionals.

Both Vioxx, which received FDA approval in May, and Celebrex, cleared in December 1998 are part of a new class of arthritis drugs referred to as Cox-2 inhibitors. The drugs are touted as able to relieve pain without causing stomach problems characteristic of earlier drugs.

Celebrex is maintaining a significant lead over Vioxx in the arthritis category, although the Merck product is gaining share and some analysts expect it eventually to pull even with Celebrex.

Celebrex had a 36.6% share ($133 million) of total U.S. retail sales of $364 million in the anti-arthritis category for October, while Vioxx was No. 2 with 15.9% ($58 million), according to consultancy Scott-Levin.

FDA APPROVALS

Celebrex only has FDA approval to treat osteoarthritis and the more painful rheumatoid arthritis, while Vioxx has a broader indication that includes osteoarthritis, acute pain and menstrual pain.

Industry observers, however, view the drugs largely as equals, and suggest DTC efforts could play a role in consumer and, ultimately, doctor preference.

"Patient preference in a low-risk category can drive your business," said Anne Devereux, president of DTC agency Consumer Healthworks, New York. "Look at the allergy category with Claritin and Zyrtec."

Ms. Devereux said those drugs are considered "parity products," but Schering-Plough's DTC spending on Claritin is more than double Pfizer's for Zyrtec, and Claritin dominates sales.

Overall, analysts expect the Cox-2 drugs to continue to expand the arthritis medication market. Merck said 21 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis.

A THIRD PLAYER: MOBIC

A third Cox-2 drug, Mobic-to be marketed jointly by Abbott Laboratories and Boehringer-Ingelheim-is expected to hit the market next year. A DTC campaign from Robert A. Becker Euro RSCG, New York, could follow.

"It's the hottest new market going," said Corey Davis, an analyst with Hambrecht & Quist. "There's certainly a huge unmet need."

Monsanto and Pfizer launched an estimated $25 million campaign for Celebrex in May from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago; that effort began with unbranded TV ads and moved to ads that mentioned Celebrex by name several weeks later. Neither ad mentioned Celebrex's possible side effects.

In September, the co-marketers launched a print campaign featuring a woman tossing a ball to her dog with the tagline "What will you do on the day you discover Celebrex?" The ad touts the drug as "the No. 1-selling brand of prescription arthritis pain medicine."

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