Clinton's heart-health crisis tailor-made for aspirin PR

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If you think you're seeing more advertising for aspirin brands in the wake of former President Bill Clinton's heart-bypass surgery, you're wrong. If you think you're seeing more news about aspirin and its role in preventing heart attacks and strokes, you're right.

Marketers of the top brands such as Bayer AG's Bayer aspirin, Bristol-Myers Squibb's Bufferin and Johnson & Johnson/McNeil Pharmaceuticals' St. Joseph's all say there was no change in media activity following the former president's surgery. Network executives confirmed that, with one cable-network executive saying that pharmaceutical companies do more big-package buys and rarely do opportunistic buys around news events.

But public-relations firms representing entities from drug makers to major hospitals to research universities tactfully walked the fine line of helping place sidebars in newspapers and mentions on morning news programs in the days following the announcement that Mr. Clinton would undergo a quadruple bypass.

As a result, there has been a heightened awareness of aspirin's benefits without the use of traditional print and TV advertising.

"There is a time-honored tradition in public relations to bring your clients into the news of the day," said Matthew Traub, general manager-chief of staff for New York public-relations giant Dan Klores Communications. "But you need to tread carefully when working around some issues, such as President Clinton's cardiovascular problems."

ethical lines

J. Peter Segall, general manager of Edelman's Washington office and the PR firm's managing director of health policy and public affairs practice, agreed. "The question is always, `Do we want to participate and what is the ethical line?"' Mr. Segall said. "But in this instance, I think what we witnessed was a national conversation, a national dialogue, about the early detection of heart problems and the benefits of aspirin."

Neither Klores Communications nor Edelman represents Bayer, BMS or McNeil. The drug makers declined to comment on any PR activity. Two of the three companies are running ad campaigns that talk about the benefits of aspirin.

St. Joseph's current campaign, from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, New York, features an actual tablet that bounces along the top of the words to a song called "Pump Your Blood" and highlights the benefits of taking aspirin. Bayer is currently running a campaign from Omnicom's BBDO Worldwide, Chicago and New York, that features daytime talk-show host Meredith Viera. Bufferin does not have a current TV campaign.

"The company has been communicating aspirin therapy on a steady and consistent basis for a number of years," Bayer spokesman William O'Donnell said. "While it's unfortunate the president had to undergo that surgery, and we wish him well, it's fairly evident his condition helped create some public awareness."

`clinton syndrome'

In fact, some are already calling it the Clinton Syndrome: middle-aged men flocking to hospitals and heart centers. Bruce Friedman, president of HeartCheck America, which operates 10 private heart centers around the country, said the number of appointments tripled in the wake of Mr. Clinton's announcement. Hospitals, such as St. Luke's-Roosevelt in New York, are reporting a 50% to 75% increase in the number of emergency-room patients complaining of chest pains.

But there is often a bump in those numbers when a celebrity is stricken-and, perhaps, a perception of seeing more advertising.

"I remember when David Letterman had his heart bypass [in 2000] I wondered, was I noticing more advertising running from Bayer, or was I just paying more attention because it was topical?" said Michael Guarini, managing director for WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather health-care practice. "In either case, it was top of mind."

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