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Animated debate

Posted 26/06/2012 by sevans

The pharmaceutical industry in the developed world has spent decades trying to educate both itself and consumers about the dangers of children seeing brightly coloured, interestingly shaped tablets and capsules as desirable sweets. It has also spent millions of dollars on developing packaging that prevents the easy access by children – and increasing older people – to every type of medication, be it strip packs of soluble aspirin or tamper-proof containers for more serious drugs. 

The basic theory revolves around the belief that children will not persevere with trying to extract tablets from strip packaging and therefore never gain access to sufficient numbers of tablets to cause them harm. For tamper-proof containers, as well as discouraging children from opening them, there is an added benefit of deterring the adulteration of products contained within them,  an approach that has spread to other types of products such as household loo and oven cleaners that also pose a danger on ingestion.

For a reason best known to itself, US drug firm Merck decided to use the latest animated film in the Madagascar series to promote its OTC allergy treatment Clarityn. The US publication Adweek has reported that the US Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston and 10 other organisations have asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the US campaign, which is said to feature the film’s characters on drug packaging, as well as activities and games online, and free tickets to see the film with purchases of Clarityn.

Adweek reports that PHAI executive director said: ‘Marketing medicine directly to children at all, much less through entertainment tie-ins, is well beyond the pale and is not only inherently unfair, it is downright dangerous.’

The letter to the FTC says the campaign violates FTC precedent established in 1977, when the FTC ruled that the Spiderman character couldn’t be used to promote vitamins directly to children. ‘The same holds true, if not more so with respect to OTC drugs,’ says the letter.

Merck has responded that the marketing campaign is aimed at parents, not kids. ‘We advertise in appropriate venues to reach parents and not directly to reach children,’ a company spokesperson is reported to have told Adweek, adding that the complaint is being reviewed by the company.

Certainly Madagascar 3, like its predecessors, is entertaining for adults as well as children – the antics of the animal cast and the actors who provide the voiceovers have an almost universal appeal. But what is the connection that was so compelling for a drug company to associate one of its products with this colourful extravaganza of digital fun? And what are the possible outcomes for the industry as a whole?

As Bob Worcester, the founder of the market research company MORI, once said, and I paraphrase: reputation is gained glacially but can be lost precipitously.

Let us hope that one act by a US pharma major will not once again re-validate his proposition and destroy all the hard work that has been done to separate children from pharmaceuticals.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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