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Just weeks after former President Ronald Reagan announced he suffers from Alzheimer's disease, Warner-Lambert Co. last week ran its first consumer ad for Cognex, the only drug approved in the U.S. to treat the illness.

The straightforward, all-type ad ran Nov. 27 in Sunday editions of 10 major dailies including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. It also ran the next day in issues of USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

The Food & Drug Administration approved Cognex as a prescription drug in September 1993 but until now the drug marketed through Warner-Lambert's Parke-Davis division has been advertised only to medical professionals. J. Walter Thompson USA and Burson-Marsteller, both New York, created the consumer ad.

Three things prompted Warner-Lambert to run the ad, said a company spokesman.

"There is certainly more attention to Alzheimer's in the aftermath of President Reagan's announcement," he said. "Also, November is Alzheimer's Disease Month and our thinking was, as families gather around the Thanksgiving holiday, it's a good time to reach them."

But the underlying reason for the ad is the drug's disappointing sales. "Part of the problem is that most physicians don't perceive it as effective, and that's why Warner-Lambert is going direct to consumers with its appeal," said Hemant Shah, an independent pharmaceutical analyst in Warren, N.J.

Cognex's had an estimated $50 million to $60 million in first-year sales, said the Warner-Lambert spokesman. That's significantly less than the $100 million-plus most analysts expected.

The ad, addressed to those with "a family member who might have Alzheimer's disease" features a toll-free number for information on Cognex. It appears to have hit a chord. More than 500 people called the Sunday it first appeared and slightly more called the following day.

Pfizer announced last week it has formed an alliance with Eisai Co., Tokyo, to develop and promote an Alzheimer's drug, E2020, to compete with Cognex. Pfizer expects to apply for FDA approval in the first quarter of 1996.

Warner-Lambert has no immediate plans to run more consumer ads, but refused to discuss its long-term intentions.

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