Merck hunts celebrity to hawk flagging Zocor

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It's not often a highly secretive pharmaceutical company allows a leak of part of its strategy for an upcoming direct-to-consumer campaign. But it has happened, providing the right talent can be found to get the ads rolling.

In a small ad in Variety, Merck & Co. indicated it was seeking a "well-known celebrity or public figure" to star in a TV and print campaign for its fading cholesterol-lowering drug Zocor.

Prospective spokespersons for a TV and print campaign must currently take the drug, and fit within an age range of 45 to 65, the ad said. Interested luminaries were asked to contact Daisy Sinclair, casting director at Zocor agency Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York

A Merck spokeswoman declined comment.


The Variety ad could signal Merck's desire to increase the visibility and appeal of Zocor, which continues to lose market share to hot-selling Lipitor, jointly marketed by Warner-Lambert Co. and Pfizer. On another level, the search for a celebrity serves as another example of how DTC Rx efforts increasingly resemble -- and compete for attention with -- general consumer advertising.

Merck presumably is looking for a trusted personality with strong name recognition who might be able to raise awareness of high cholesterol.

It's crucial that the drug marketer select someone with an appeal to the target audience, said Henry Schafer, exec VP of Marketing Evaluations/TVQ, which tracks celebrity name recognition.

"If people who suffer from high cholesterol are 45 to 65 and overweight, you may not want to use Mariah Carey," he said.

Merck spent $42 million in measured media for the drug last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting.


But it may take more than a new marketing tack to give Zocor a lift. The drug, available in the U.S. since 1992, has seen its share suffer since Lipitor came on the market in 1997.

Last year, Lipitor had 35% of the $5 billion U.S. market in its class of cholesterol-lowering drugs, while Zocor posted 32%, according to consulting company Scott-Levin. But figures for October 1999 showed Lipitor with 45% of the $529 million in U.S. sales for that month, while Zocor had 29%.

"I'm not sure it will be able to gain any market share because Lipitor is so well-established," said Hemant Shah, an analyst with HKS & Co.

Merck, the leading U.S. pharmaceutical marketer, told analysts earlier this month Zocor "continued its strong growth" this year. But Lipitor has become such a top-seller that it serves as the central prize in Pfizer's attempt for a hostile takeover of Warner-Lambert.

Warner-Lambert has balked at Pfizer's overtures and sued to nullify their joint agreement to co-market the drug. The matter is expected to go to trial in April 2000.

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