PFIZER SHIFTS CONVERSATION ON VIAGRA IN A NEW DIRECTION

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with a new TV and print campaign featuring former Sen. Bob Dole, Pfizer is attempting to move Viagra off the agenda of late-night talk shows and back into the realm of a more serious discussion about erectile dysfunction.

"Before Viagra was introduced, this was a taboo subject," says Andy McCormick, director of pharmaceutical communications at Pfizer. "People increasingly get medical news from the media, and we believe [all the publicity about Viagra] has been helpful in moving the discussion forward."

INDUSTRY TAKES NOTES

Yet the campaign, created by Cline Davis & Mann, New York, is being watched closely by more than just consumers and pundits. The pharmaceutical industry is taking notes because it marks the first time Pfizer is attempting to manage the dialogue about Viagra since the drug was launched last year.

"Viagra has been a runaway train for them and they're [Pfizer] smart to try and regain control," says Gary Stibel, founder of New England Consulting Group. "It's a very good drug for an important human condition . . . and it needs to be discussed in that way."

Going directly to consumers with advertising about prescription drugs is a reality of the new medical marketplace, an environment where consumers increasingly enter doctors' offices armed with the brand name of the drug they want.

"It's more difficult for company [sales] people to spend time with physicians, because the doctors have less time to spend," says Jack Trout, president of consultancy Trout & Partners. "Going direct to consumers is a good strategy. The world has changed, and they're taking advantage of that."

There is industrywide agreement that Pfizer has led the way in DTC pharmaceutical advertising and has been aggressive in marketing its arsenal of drugs.

"It's very much like selling soap now, and companies like Pfizer -- which get it -- are going to be successful," says Mr. Stibel. "While many will find the analogy to soap outrageous, the two [categories] have more in common than not."

FDA AS GATEKEEPER

Certainly, prescription drugs can be positioned like soap, but unlike package goods, Food & Drug Administration still plays a major gate-keeping role, approving campaigns before they break.

The Viagra educational campaign, Pfizer and Cline executives are quick to point out, is not the campaign slated to break on TV this year. A series of print ads for Viagra by Cline broke last July.

"There's a lot of back and forth with the FDA about what is appropriate to say," says Carol DiSanto, exec VP-director of DTC communications for Cline. "Sure we're anxious to get a Viagra campaign on the air -- all along we've been saying we have to take control of the image of Viagra -- but we don't want to have stuff pulled off of the air once it starts."

PFIZER BUDGETS $100M

While drug companies still must walk the regulatory tightrope with the FDA over DTC advertising, Pfizer, for one, believes consumers can handle such strong stuff. It is earmarking more than $100 million annually to bring a handful of its pharmaceutical drugs directly to consumers' attention: Zyrtec, an allergy medication; Zithromax, an antibiotic, and now, Viagra.

About $15 million of that budget is spent on a corporate-identity campaign. The aim of that campaign is to present Pfizer as a source of health and medical information.

"As more and more prescription drugs either go over-the-counter or are prescription drugs marketed to consumers, it will be necessary to be established as a credible source," says Stone Roberts, chairman-CEO, Gotham, New York, which handles Pfizer's corporate-identity account. "Sure, people know Viagra, but they don't always associate it with Pfizer. This is an attempt to get the consumer to associate the Pfizer name not so much with a specific drug but as the company that has the solutions to diseases. We're establishing a context and a reputation."

DTC NOT FOR ALL DRUGS

Not every drug is appropriate for the DTC advertising treatment, says Mr. McCormick. The rule of thumb is "if the patient knows [he has] that particular condition, then it makes sense to advertise [a product that can treat] that condition. But we don't do DTC advertising for conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol that have to be detected by a physician."

That approach makes sense, especially since many physicians remain uneasy over the role DTC advertising plays in their own patient-doctor relationships, says Mr. Trout.

"Our perspective is we think advertising is a form of information transfer," says Mr. McCormick. "We know that consumers are more interested in health and healthcare than they were 10 years ago. We find that physicians generally believe DTC advertising an appropriate activity for us."

"A lot of people are under the notion that these campaigns always work," the executive continues. "It's not the advertising but clinical superiority -- the drug has to work."

"Doctors really aren't enamored with DTC advertising," notes Beth Miller, senior VP-director of CME Health, a division of Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis, which produced Pfizer's current Zithromax print advertising. "But doctors are in a service business. They can't reject out-of-hand the request by a patient if they ask about a particular drug."

But how much information does a consumer really need before he or she asks the doctor?

"We argue a lot with Pfizer about what should and shouldn't be said in [its] DTC advertising," says Jerry Lee, managing director of HMC Advertising, New York, the consumer healthcare division of Omnicom Group.

HMC recently won a Mobius Award for last year's Zyrtec allergy medication campaign. A new campaign, with the same "The Power of Zyrtec" theme, break s this month.

"They're in favor of revealing as many of the side effects as they can . . . and we're now up to 14 seconds in a 60-second commercial doing just that. But Pfizer believes it's time well spent," says Mr. Lee.

Increasingly, Pfizer hopes consumers will ask their physician about Viagra and other Pfizer branded medications. It's not completely altruistic that the company is beginning a campaign for erectile dysfunction and Viagra just as new prescriptions for the drug have fallen off. At its peak, about 300,000 prescriptions per month were written for Viagra; now, only about 75,000 new prescriptions are written for Viagra each month.

"The swell of publicity Pfizer received for Viagra certainly was unique," says Jeff Gray, partner at Gray & Graham Marketing Group, Westport, Conn. "But with prescriptions falling off, they're also quick to see they have to get back out there and get the trend moving up again."

"I don't know how much more 'managing' they need to do," agrees Mr. Trout. "With a drug like Viagra, it's driven by publicity. But I would run more informative ads, not the dancing couples. Use the publicity to really talk about the important advantages of this drug. There's no need to be cute here."

NOT A JOKE

Pfizer never intended the dialogue about Viagra to be cute or humorous. And it certainly wasn't pleased over publicity about negative side effects about the drug, says Mr. McCormick.

"The message became that this somehow was a frivolous condition," he says. "It put people off from talking with their doctor and a lot of inaccurate information was transmitted. We understand it, we know why people found it funny, but it was not helpful."

But if Pfizer's goal is to surpass Merck & Co., its major competitor, as the leading pharmaceutical marketer, then it's better to learn early lessons of how to manage both the good and bad publicity of DTC advertising, says Mr. Trout.

"They really are adopting a page out of [Procter & Gamble Co.'s] marketing textbook in that they're beginning to realize that doctors will write prescriptions for the big advertised drugs," says Mr. Trout. "They'll write them because not only is the consumer aware of them, but they're realizing that

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