'Morning-After Pill' Catches Flak for MTV.com Ad

Site's Under-18 Visitors Will See Banner for Emergency Contraceptive Plan B

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The so-called morning-after pill is advertising on MTV.com.

Emergency contraceptive Plan B has been controversial from the moment it was approved in 2006 as an over-the-counter drug available without a prescription to women 18 and older. Now, the brand's choice of ad placement is stoking debate about where --and at what age -- sexual- and reproductive-health education is appropriate.

If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, Plan B has been shown to be effective at preventing pregnancies. Plan B, marketed by Duramed, a subsidiary of Barr Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired last month by Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, is not effective if a woman is already pregnant, and it will not terminate an existing pregnancy.

Age plays a role
The company is running a banner ad for Plan B on the popular MTV website, where media-measurement firm Quantcast found that nearly a third of users are younger than 18. Teva disputes that estimate. But age does play a role when it comes to marketing. Girls 17 and younger need a prescription to get the drug, which must be stocked behind the counter and dispensed by pharmacists.

The banner ad on MTV.com is in a rotation with ads from marketers such as Samsung, Verizon Wireless, Target, Netflix and H&R Block, among others. It ran atop MTV.com in the last week of December and the first week of January. The ad is simple, not overt, and directs users to the Plan B website, go2planb.com. Its tagline is "Because the unexpected happens."

The tagline and media buy worry some parents, such as Denise O'Donoghue and her husband, Patrick, who recently had "the talk" with their 14-year old daughter. "We asked her what she knew, and we were shocked at how much misinformation and misconception among kids is really out there about sexual education," said Ms. O'Donoghue, who resides in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "For MTV to run this ad is irresponsible. There are some kids -- girls and boys -- who aren't quite ready to understand all this. Between that and the way the advertising for Plan B makes it sound like you can make a mistake and have a do-over, it's irresponsible."

"It adds to my concern that the owner of Plan B is directly targeting younger girls in order just to sell more of their product, without concern for the health or the emotional well-being of those girls," said Wendy Wright, president of the Washington-based advocacy group Concerned Women for America.

'Already full of curiosity'
Dr. Vanessa Cullins, VP-medical affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, disagreed. "By the time teenagers are browsing the MTV website, they are already full of curiosity about their sexual health," she said. "Countless studies have shown that the more often that parents and educators talk with adolescents and provide them with age-appropriate sexual-health information, the more likely they are to make responsible decisions. In addition, studies have shown that providing teenagers with information about birth-control options and information to prevent unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections does not lead to earlier onset of sexual activity and intimacy; rather, it provides teenagers with the tools to make healthy decisions."

Calls to MTV's office of corporate responsibility, as well to its digital-ad-sales office and media-relations department, were not returned.

According to San Francisco-based Quantcast, MTV.com has an average of 4.2 million users in the U.S. each month, and caters "to a younger, slightly female-slanted group." According to Quantcast's November numbers, traffic to MTV.com was 57% female, 43% male. Nearly a third of its visitors are younger than 18, with 4% between the ages of three and 11 and 27% between 12 and 17. The site's biggest demographic, some 41%, is 18 to 34.

Different data
Duramed issued a statement to Advertising Age in which it pointed out that data from ComScore, another media-measurement company, show that the average age of an MTV.com visitor is 24.7, and that only 15% of the site's users are younger than 17. "Duramed and its advertising agency, DraftFCB, take very seriously the responsibility for placing advertising for Plan B, a dual-label pharmaceutical product, to the appropriate audience of young adult women 18-plus," said the statement, which was attributed to Carol Cox, senior VP-global investor relations and corporate communications for Barr.

"Plan B advertising messages communicate the age requirements across all vehicles," the statement went on. From a media perspective, Plan B adheres to strict buying guidelines which have been developed across all media channels to ensure that potential exposure ('spill') to those 17 or younger is very limited."

But Ms. Wright of Concerned Women for America said that's an overly optimistic philosophy when, as with alcohol or cigarettes, an underage consumer could have a sibling or friend over 18 walk into any pharmacy and purchase Plan B for them. "This is no different than the way tobacco companies advertise by using animation or cartoons," she said. "Clearly the intent is to draw the younger crowd."

More-adult-oriented media outlets
Plan B does advertise on more-adult-oriented media outlets, such as the We Network. Ms. Cox's statement said within all other media, exposure to those 17 and younger is limited by not purchasing cable networks, TV shows and magazines that have significant consumption among that audience.

"In fact, by having these limitations, Plan B will not place advertising within some of the media properties that are most targeted to those over 18 (e.g., CW Network, Fox, and family-oriented programming)," Ms. Cox said in the statement. "Further, Plan B will not run during programming that centers on high school themes."

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