Flu Fever Fuels Sanitizer Sales and Lots of Tweets

Meanwhile, Mexico and Pig Farmers Try to Save Their Beleaguered Brands

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Chrysler went bankrupt, but you might not have noticed as the world fixated on swine flu. As news of the outbreak blanketed the globe, it spawned some instant marketing and media phenomena.

Credit: Benedicte Desrus
Consumers stormed to the web to learn how to cope with the flu and hit drugstores looking for hand sanitizers and remedies; health groups turned to Twitter to calm fears. The Mexican Tourist Board looked for ways to protect the country's third-largest industry, while the U.S. pork producers, fearing a sales falloff, endeavored to get the word "swine" out of headlines.

All the world atwitter

It didn't take long to turn swine-flu hysteria into an iPhone app, the top "trending topic" on Twitter for much of last week and a YouTube video from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was viewed 85,000 times in two days. And Google rushed out an Experimental Flu Trends for Mexico tool to help track flu cases as they spread.

Software maker IntuApp's Swine Flu Tracker, which plots known and suspected cases on the map and even includes a handy symptom guide, awaited approval from Apple to get placement in the App Store.

Sharing major traffic on Twitter with "swine flu" were groups such as #swine flu, H1N1 and even CDC. The swine-flu scare helped the CDC build a public-alert system via Twitter. The @CDCemergency account, largely ignored until last week, suddenly had more than 52,000 followers eager for updates.

Topics related to "swine flu" shot up to nearly 2% of all blog posts and accounted for the same percentage of all tweets, according to Nielsen Buzz Metrics.

Drugstore traffic spikes

People weren't just looking to discuss the disease on the web. Searches spiked for "Purell Hand Sanitizer" and "face masks," Google said. And that spilled over into the real world.

A Clorox Co. spokeswoman said the company is ramping up bleach and Clorox Wipes production but isn't seeing shortages or planning ads to consumers, who already get the flu-fighting message. Some products have been diverted from Houston to Mexico City to international relief organizations. "This is a time for companies to do everything they can to help," she said, "not to market."

Roche's Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza are the only two antiviral prescription drugs designated by the Food and Drug Administration to treat swine flu. A Walgreens spokesperson said the pharmacy saw an increase in Tamiflu prescriptions and placed additional orders for both drugs.

But not everyone is taking the most-effective precautions. One buyer said his stores have sold out of dust masks for painting or mowing lawns, which are no use against the flu, and TheraFlu, although not recommended to treat swine flu, "is flying off the shelves."

Disruption in the ad industry

Swine-flu fear is causing disruption due to the sheer volume of commercials shot in Mexico, a cheap location due to the peso's weakness. According to the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, Latin America surpassed Canada in 2007 as the No. 1 region for foreign shoots by U.S. companies.

"There's just no room for that kind of fear in a production," said AICP President Matt Miller. "If I were the film commissioner in Mexico City, I'd be freaking out."

Saatchi & Saatchi's New York office rarely uses Mexico for production work but was about to start, and was finalizing a shoot there for one of its largest clients as news reports of swine flu exploded. The shoot was scrapped, and Saatchi will search for another location, said David Perry, head of TV production.

U.S. Hispanic agencies have close ties to Mexico, the homeland of many of their creatives, and often shoot there. One agency, Dieste, already had a team in Mexico last week to do an AT&T spot but flew them home to Dallas instead. Mauricio Galvan, Vidal Partnership's executive creative director, said he just moved a shoot for Sprint from Mexico to Los Angeles "in an abundance of caution."

Procter & Gamble canceled a regional Latin America meeting April 28 in Mexico City. Agency execs got e-mails Sunday afternoon telling them not to go to the airport Monday morning to fly to Mexico.

"I've had people actually ask me if I've been to Mexico before shaking my hand," said Daniel Marrero, founder of Hispanic shop COD in Miami. "No one wants to fly there or ... meet with people who have just flown in from Mexico."

Manuel A. Rivera Raba, director general of Time Inc.-owned Mexican publisher Grupo Editorial Expansion, said half his staff worked from home last week and six reported symptoms, although only one was treated for swine flu and is doing well.

Mexico, pork industry struggle with image

The Mexico Tourism Board is talking with its agencies around the world about what message to come out with, and a U.S. media buy is expected soon through its U.S. media agency of record, Machado/Garcia-Serra. Continental Airlines announced plans Friday to reduce flights to Mexico.

Mexico is virtually shut down for five days through May 5. Ian Cook, CEO of Colgate-Palmolive Co., said the company's factories would stay open. In an April 30 conference call, he said Colgate's substantial business in Mexico doesn't appear to have been hurt and may even be helped as more consumers buy more hand-washing soap.

Meanwhile, the National Pork Board and Pork Producers' Council are hoping the government's effort to change the name of swine flu to H1N1 virus sticks.

Gene Grabowski, senior VP, Levick Strategic Communications, said such a rebrand is a tall order. "You have to come up with a name that's shorter or easier to say."

Governments get the message out

As the outbreak spreads to new countries, the U.K. government is delivering a leaflet to every household and breaking TV, radio, print and online ads by DDB, London. The quickly assembled campaign borrows an old tagline -- "Catch it, bin it, kill it" -- from a 2007 campaign to prevent the spread of regular flu. The ads include a hot-line number, hygiene advice, what to do if symptoms appear and reassurance that the government is prepared for a wider outbreak.

In the U.S., the CDC has unleashed a multipronged communications assault, coupling TV, print, satellite-media tours, 800-numbers and radio with widgets, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace.

"We are trying to make sure our director, Dr. Richard Besser, is as visible and responsible as he can be," said Glen Nowak, the CDC's chief of media relations. While nearly all the communications professionals Ad Age spoke to agreed Dr. Besser projects credibility and reassurance, some said the relentless flow of news on how many cases have been confirmed and messaging from numerous other parties such as the World Health Organization and local health departments is dangerously close to fueling the fear factor.

Ame Wadler, exec VP and head of Global Healthcare at Interpublic Group of Cos.' MWW, said, "You hear so much about it all the time, and that is inadvertently raising people's fear." She said she heard from three different health organizations on her commute home one day last week.

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