Undeterred by DTC flap, Boniva plots $60M push

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With criticism over direct-to-consumer advertising still a hot-button topic, pharmaceutical manufacturers GlaxoSmithKline and Roche are forging ahead with the first big DTC ad campaign of the year.

With what executives say is an estimated $40 million to $60 million budget, the drug makers are rolling out a comprehensive marketing blitz for Boniva, the first osteoporosis drug that can be taken monthly instead of weekly or daily. The start of the campaign, from Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi Consumer Healthcare Group, New York, is imminent. Boniva received Food and Drug Administration approval March 25 and is expected on pharmacy shelves this month.

Saatchi actually won the business in February of 2004 and has had more than a year to prepare a campaign. But in the interim, life for DTC advertising has changed dramatically. Backlash from consumers and political groups has been heavy since Merck's arthritis drug Vioxx was pulled from the market late last year and Pfizer's Celebrex, a competitor, was asked by the FDA to cease all consumer marketing.

GlaxoSmithKline, because of its enormous sales force, is handling the marketing and did not return calls for comment. But Tom Lom, president of Saatchi & Saatchi Consumer Healthcare Group, said he is aware of the sensitivity in the category.

"I think the educational function of DTC is in the public interest and continues to be a valid and viable marketing tool for the industry," Mr. Lom said. "I would expect that the appropriate kind of DTC will continue to be a significant presence in that regard."

NO SPECIFICS

Mr. Lom would not comment on the campaign's specifics, but executives familiar with the Boniva launch expect the ads to build around the drug's unique feature: Patients only have to take the drug once a month, as opposed to the weekly doses from Merck's market-leading Fosamax and No. 2 Actonel, marketed by Sanofi-Aventis and Procter & Gamble.

Osteoporosis causes bones to be come fragile and brittle. The side effects of osteoporosis medications known as bisphosphonates include not being able to eat or drink for up to an hour after taking the drug; in some cases, patients must stand or sit during that time as well.

It's expected that Boniva's advertising will center around the less frequent occurrences of the side effects by taking a pill 12 times a year as opposed to 52 times.

Analysts at Lehman Brothers forecast Boniva to reach sales of $500 million to $700 million. And the window of opportunity is small: Novartis expects to apply to the FDA for approval of a once-a-year injection called Aclasta in 2007.

contributing: lisa sanders

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