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To counter flagging sales of its over-the-counter Nicotrol patch, McNeil Consumer Products Co. is making the unusual move of introducing a brand extension on the prescription side and shifting brand advertising to an estimated $15 million direct-response TV effort.

Nicotrol Inhaler and its direct-response TV spot from Saatchi & Saatchi's Hudson Street Partners, New York, are now being tested in Baltimore and Houston, and the effort may go national this fall. The 60-second spot pictures a man and woman riding in a convertible as he handles the inhaler -- about the size and shape of a cigarette -- like a cigarette. A toll-free number is given for McNeil's "Pathways to Change" smoking program and a $5 coupon for the Rx product.

The inhaler offers smokers who want to quit an alternative for the hand-to-mouth ritual of cigarettes.


"We are viewing the Nicotrol franchise as very viable and putting a lot of support behind it," said Dave Brown, group product director on the brand. But McNeil will put media support "mainly behind the inhaler" because "you put your efforts behind what's new."

Despite McNeil's initial advantage when its Nicotrol patch won Food & Drug Administration approval to go OTC a month ahead of competitor SmithKline Beecham's NicoDerm CQ, Nicotrol has been surpassed by its rival.

Nicotrol's OTC sales slid 22.9%, to $44.2 million, in the $567.5 million market for the 52 weeks ended March 29, according to Information Resources Inc. SmithKline Beecham's Nicorette gum held $291.2 million in sales, a 15.6% increase, followed by NicoDerm CQ, at $230.5 million and a 49% jump.

Following their summer 1996 introductions, new competition hit in July 1997 in the form of Glaxo Wellcome's prescription anti-smoking pill, Zyban.

Total Zyban sales through March 31 were $99.6 million, according to IMS America.


McNeil's first campaign for Nicotrol, which broke in July 1996, used testimonials of real smokers in Ann Arbor, Mich. Spending for the effort, from DDB Needham Worldwide, New York, totaled $58 million in the first year, according to Competitive Media Reporting, compared with the much larger one-two punch of SmithKline Beecham's spending: $85.7 million for NicoDerm CQ and $70 million for Nicorette, via Jordan McGrath Case & Partners, New York.

Both brands scrambled for marketing partnerships, with the American Cancer Society teaming with NicoDerm CQ, and the American Lung Association with Nicotrol.

In January 1997, McNeil moved Nicotrol from DDB Needham to Saatchi & Saatchi's Healthcare Connection, New York, and media support dropped to just $13.7 million for 1997, compared with $53.4 million the year before.

Ed Schmitt, senior consultant at healthcare marketing consultancy Genesis Group, said McNeil seems to be conceding the patch market to SmithKline Beecham and moving on.

"There comes a time when you're spending more than you're selling and you cut your losses," he said.


Mr. Brown, however, said there are plans for more general branding efforts for Nicotrol, to pull in the 2-year-old prescription spray and OTC patch as well.

He said McNeil hopes to bring both prescription products OTC, too.

Mr. Brown also isn't upset about Zyban, the newest competitor.

"Doctors are re-engaging with patients on the prescription side due to Zyban," he said, "It's a favorable environment."

Zyban got $20 million in direct-to-consumer ad support during the last quarter of 1997, via FCB Healthcare, New York.

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