Turn Vioxx crisis into opportunity

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Merck spent $503 million advertising Vioxx in the U.S.-more than $5 for each of the 91 million prescriptions written-since the drug's 1999 debut. The anti-arthritis blockbuster became an overnight failure two weeks ago when Merck pulled the drug. The problem was the product, not the ads.

Pill-pushing ads have been pilloried by foes who say consumers pay the price in high prescription costs. In last week's vice presidential debate, John Edwards vowed: "We're going to stand up to the drug companies and do something about these drug-company ads on television, which are out of control."

Advertising no doubt will come under more scrutiny following Vioxx, which Merck pulled from the world market after a clinical trial on colon cancer found increased risk of heart attack and strokes in cancer patients.

But Vioxx ads (from DDB Worldwide) aren't the problem-any more than Ford or Firestone ads were at fault when the automaker and supplier recalled tires in 2000 following fatal accidents involving defective Firestones on Ford Explorers.

Merck's ad money helped make Vioxx a blockbuster. Consumers and doctors saw ads; consumers asked doctors; doctors prescribed a pill that it turns out could put certain patients at risk.

It makes sense to ask questions about Merck and about whether the Food and Drug Administration lived up to its role in protecting consumers. It's illogical to blame Vioxx ads. Yet foes of drug ads will try, and that's a problem for all drug advertisers.

Johnson & Johnson demonstrated in the 1982 Tylenol tampering tragedy that the right communications response in a crisis can improve a drugmaker's reputation. Vioxx is not Tylenol, to be sure. But drug sellers have an opportunity. It's possible, for example, to better use product ads for the dual purpose of improving corporate image. That's a start. Post-Vioxx, the bottom line is this: Advertising is not the problem, but it could be part of the solution.

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