PRESCRIPTION FOR PROFIT: BROADCAST BOOM LIKELY, BUT NOT WITHOUT CAUTION: CERTAIN CATEGORIES USE TV WITH ABANDON; OTHERS PREFER TO USE OLD AD GUIDELINES

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We're on the verge of an explosion on TV in the pharmaceutical category," says Jon Mandel, senior VP-national broadcast at Grey Advertising, New York.

Mr. Mandel predicts direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketers could spend about $500 million on TV this year.

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR

But despite the recent liberalization of TV rules by Food & Drug Administration -- making the medium far more practical -- Mr. Mandel and others emphasize the word "verge."

"The holdup, as I see it, is on the creative side," says Mr. Mandel. "There is a difference in selling OTC product and selling prescription medicine."

Other media executives, who asked that their names not be used, were less diplomatic.

According to one: "Histor-ically, there's been a division at the drug companies between the prescription guys -- who I call the white coats -- who sell to doctors and those who have sold to consumers. Now, with DTC, that gap has to be filled. It will be, but it might take some time."

First, marketers have to digest the new guidelines and figure out how to comply without frightening consumers.

DRUG COMPANIES NOT RUSHING

Nonetheless, Glaxo Wellcome and Hoffman-La Roche executives say they would rather stick to unbranded TV commercials for antismoking pill Zyban and acne remedy Accutane, respectively. Others agree.

"I'm not sure about TV yet," says Robert Ehrlich, head of DTC marketing for Warner-Lambert Co.'s Parke-Davis unit, at a February research conference on the subject. "I'm not sure the FDA's done us a great favor by opening it up -- it's scary stuff" to hear.

He says he has been evaluating the medium "intensely" for the last 18 months on behalf of Rezulin, a prescription drug for diabetes.

As DTC marketers wrestle with how to sell their products on TV, they may want to review Pharmacia & Upjohn's efforts for Rogaine. The 1988 Rogaine campaign was a pioneer effort for the DTC category.

ROGAINE'S EVOLUTION

"Going after our male target we bought primarily network TV, with a heavy emphasis on football and sports," recalls Bruce Houtman, manager of DTC promotion for Rogaine. "The first ads weren't allowed to mention the product, of course; we used a beach setting and the tagline, `I always thought hair loss was as inevitable as the tides.' "

These early spots suggested that men ask their doctors to learn more about treating hair loss.

The company's first challenge was getting copy cleared by FDA.

"Their concern was that the ads were very Rogaine-specific, even though we never mentioned the product," Mr. Houtman says.

The company was able to convince FDA officials that there were indeed other treatments for hair loss, such as hair-weaving.

COPY TWEAKED

After the spots started airing, Upjohn tweaked the ad copy to direct consumers to visit their dermatologists.

Mr. Houtman says an analysis of consumers' response indicated "it was too easy for men to put off going to a dermatologist or doctor and asking about hair loss. We needed a way to convince them to act."

One solution seemed to be a spot featuring a father holding his baby. The father tells his child he will have a head full of hair, but daddy was losing his own.

"Internally, we all thought that was a great spot," Mr. Houtman says, "but we never used it because it didn't do what we wanted when we tested it. The man was really too confident, too comfortable. Again, it didn't get men to go see a professional about hair loss."

What worked was a spot showing a man looking into a mirror and telling himself that a lot of guys have hair loss, are taking care of it and that he must act now.

Upjohn hit the nail on the head with its next commercial featuring a totally bald man warning those with early signs of hair loss to act now. The spot featured a devil figure who suggested balding men accept the inevitable.

The company tried other ploys as well, including offering $10 certificates to consumers who responded to a direct-response commercial by calling a toll-free number.

"Of every 10 certificates we sent out, only two were used," says Mr. Houtman. "But more than two of the 10 people went to their dermatologist or doctor to learn about the product. The point was that the certificates got them to take action."

CAUTION IS ADVISED

Mr. Houtman says that regardless of the new rules, he thinks DTC marketers should resist rushing some brands onto TV.

"It really needs to be looked at on an individual basis. You need to decide if going the TV route on a prescription product is appropriate," he says. "You need to assess if the product is for a problem the consumer would usually go to a doctor for anyway, DTC marketers also may have TV options beyond traditional commercials. KSL Media, New York, has been negotiating a deal with TV stations to air a series of 26 medical programs that could air as early as this spring or later in the year.

TALKING TO SPONSORS

"We're still talking to pharmaceutical companies about sponsoring shows," says Tom Mullen, KSL media planning director.

Direct-response TV producer Medical Broadcasting Co. is trying to air "By Prescription Only," a medical program sponsored by Schering-Plough Corp. and Glaxo Wellcome (AA, Oct. 20).

David Kramer, chairman-CEO of MBC, says five pharmaceutical companies have each agreed to sponsor a nother broadcast. Although he declined to identify the companies, he says an antismoking drug and an allergy drug will be the subjects of two programs. They will test on local TV in two markets in June and August.

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