The move comes after Tamiflu, the rival flu drug marketed by Hoffman-La Roche, trounced Relenza's sales last winter and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration forced Glaxo to revise its labeling to reflect reports of serious respiratory problems in people using the the inhaler.
A Glaxo spokesman declined comment on its ad plans for Relenza, but one person close to the matter said the company will now shift gears, concentrating its resources on targeting physicians rather than consumers.
Roche and Glaxo became engaged in a head-to-head battle with the launch of new, potentially groundbreaking flu drugs last fall. In its bid to gain a competitive advantage, Glaxo chose Mr. Knight, who played noxious neighbor Newman in "Seinfeld," to become the personification of the flu in its campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.
Mr. Knight could return in the future and still has a deal with Glaxo. But for now, Roche -- and the FDA -- appear to have succeeded where Jerry Seinfeld failed -- in banishing Newman.
Roche, meanwhile, plans to tout its freshman-year victory over Relenza this time around. In January, it plans to bring back the same creative it employed for Tamiflu last year from Y&R Advertising, New York, a decidedly less flashy effort than Glaxo's where the TV features a woman bedridden by the flu forced to miss critical time at work -- but will tweak it slightly to include the claim that the treatment is the No. 1 prescribed flu drug in America, a person with knowledge of the situation said. A Roche spokesman declined to comment on ad plans, but said: "We were very pleased with our first-year results and our goal is to maintain the leadership position in the market."
Tamiflu posted $41 million in U.S. sales last flu season from November 1999 through April 2000, while Relenza generated $20 million, according to IMS Health.
Both companies, however, may have suffered red ink. Glaxo and Roche each spent around $40 million on direct-to-consumer ads for their respective drugs, according to Competitive Media Reporting.
Industry observers said Mr. Knight's spots worked to create awareness that a new flu drug was available, and may have even prompted people to visit a doctor. But those people may then have vaguely requested a prescription for a new flu drug, perhaps helping Tamiflu's cause.
`BIG QUESTION MARK'
"Whether or not they remembered that `Newman' was actually Relenza and Tamiflu had its own separate campaign is probably a big question mark," said Julie Kline, who studies the effectiveness of DTC ads for consultancy Scott-Levin.
The Glaxo spokesman said the company felt the ads were effective.
But the FDA may have felt both companies' ads were working too well, as it put out an advisory warning physicians against possible overprescribing. In the end, Tamiflu had the advantage of being a pill, while Relenza is delivered via an inhaler, something unfamiliar to many consumers. Neither drug can stop the onset of the flu, but both can mitigate its affects if taken within the first two days.
With Mr. Knight, the Relenza campaign drew plenty of attention from the FDA. The agency forced Glaxo to pull the ads off the air and revise them to avoid over-hyping before they were returned.
Even though Relenza may be hurt by the revised labeling, both drugs may benefit this year from the late arrival and slight decline in availability of flu vaccines around the country. The Centers for Disease Control said 75 million doses of vaccines are expected to be available, down a bit from 77 million last year (74 million were used). Most doses are usually available in October, but this year a substantial number won't be distributed until December, meaning people may turn to the Roche and Glaxo drugs instead.