NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- This year's back-to-school shopping list: Pencils? Check. Notebooks? Check. Cervical-cancer vaccine?
Faced with declining sales for Gardasil, the controversial -- and so far only -- vaccine for prevention of human papillomavirus, Merck & Co. is planning to boost the drug's visibility during the key back-to-school shopping period beginning this month.
"As we move into the third quarter, we expect sequential growth as we leverage the back-to-school season," Ken Frazier, Merck exec VP-president of global human health, told analysts during the company's most recent earnings conference call. Gardasil's second-quarter worldwide sales were $268 million, an 18% drop from the second quarter of 2008. U.S. sales declined 28% compared with the second quarter of last year.
Mr. Frazier blamed saturation of the market. The vaccine made its debut three years ago for girls and young women ages 9 to 26. Gardasil is administered in a series of three shots over six months and prevents four types of HPV -- two types that cause 70% of cervical cancer and two types that cause 90% of genital-wart cases. But Gardasil is effective only when administered before the onset of sexual activity to prevent genital warts. Mr. Frazier believes the prime target of girls ages 13 to 18 has reached a peak.
"While we are by no means satisfied with the current performance, we are executing on our recently initiated programs and remain firmly committed to achieving greater vaccination rates in the 19-to-26 age group," Mr. Frazier told analysts.
That means a ramp-up in spending -- also noted by Merck executives during the earnings call -- for Gardasil, which received $98.6 million in measured-media spending in 2007 and $95 million last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Merck spokeswoman Pamela Eisele said increased visibility for Gardasil is not necessarily timed with back to school or back to campus. Nonetheless, Merck is participating in vaccination-day events with physicians' offices, clinics and nursing groups by offering supportive resources such as posters, mailers, consumer material and pocket cards that coincide with the time when kids and young adults typically get physicals before school starts in September.
"Resources were made available several months ago to support execution during the back-to-school time frame," Ms. Eisele said, adding that vaccination-day events are not Merck-driven but include "customizable materials that health-care professionals can use to educate parents and the public."
Merck has always been fairly savvy when it comes to target marketing of Gardasil. Its first TV campaign, from DDB, New York, ran with the tagline "One Less," and focused on young girls who intoned that they were "one less" patient who contracted HPV or cervical cancer. The current campaign is "I Chose" and appeals to the parents of those young girls. The spots still feature the original "One Less" theme and include an adult woman saying, "I chose to get my daughter vaccinated because I want her to be one less woman affected by cervical cancer."
Merck also produced a spot last year that appealed to the elusive 19-to-26 age group Mr. Frazier spoke of -- a 60-second ad based on "I Chose" that ran in theaters prior to the "Sex and the City" movie.
But Gardasil hasn't been without controversy. Merck came under fire after the vaccine's debut three years ago for what was considered heavy-handed lobbying of states to mandate the vaccine be given to girls ages 11 and 12.
The FDA, in fact, just might become Gardasil's new best friend as Mr. Frazier seeks to grow the market for the vaccine. The FDA is considering Merck's request to market and use Gardasil in boys and men ages 9 to 26 to prevent external genital lesions caused by four types of HPV, and for use in women ages 27 to 45.