Former presidential nominee Bob Dole admits that
he takes Viagra. The perfectly composed Joan Lunden suffers from
itchy eyes and sneezing. Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis
fights migraine headaches.
No, these people aren't attending a self-help group for
celebrities with ailments. They're helping drugmakers pitch their
As competition in the drug industry intensifies and pressure
mounts on companies to build profits, an increasing number of
pharmaceutical firms are employing famous actors, politicians and
sports stars to attract consumer and physician interest.
"The use of celebrities is the next big way to differentiate a
drug," said Kelly Peters, senior marketing manager for IMS Health,
a health information firm based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.
Celebrity product endorsements are nothing new: Seinfeld
co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus touted hair color and Michael Jordan
sells telephone service. But until last year, drugmakers did not
use them to market to consumers because the industry's sole focus
was on promoting their products to doctors who prescribe the
The emergence of celebrity drug advertising to patients and
physicians comes amid an explosion in consumer advertising since
the Food and Drug Administration in August 1997 loosened restraints
on television and radio commercials for prescription drugs.
Last July, Schering-Plough became the first pharmaceutical firm
to use a celebrity in a direct-to-consumer national television
campaign. It tapped Lunden, former Good Morning, America
anchor, to promote its prescription allergy pill, Claritin.
The company would not reveal how much she was paid, though
analysts have speculated it's about $1 million a year.
The payoff for Schering-Plough: The aggressive advertising
campaign for Claritin helped worldwide sales soared by 35 percent
last year to $2.3 billion, including $1.9 billion in U.S. sales.
"We saw this as the next step to reach out to consumers," said
Schering-Plough spokesman Bob Consalvo.
Despite their increasing use, celebrity ads still represent
only a tiny portion of the billions the industry spends on drug
promotion each year. Drug companies still rely on thousands of
sales agents to persuade doctors to use their drugs, said Ed
Mathers, vice president of consumer health-care marketing for Glaxo
But the use of celebrities shows how pharmaceutical firms have
become more creative in their marketing. For example,
Schering-Plough advertises Claritin on United Airlines baggage tags
and Merck offers patients a money-back guarantee on its
cholesterol-lowering drug Zocor.
Drug companies use different types of celebrity pitches to sell
their products. In some instances, they use those who can give a
firsthand testimonial to the effectiveness of the drug, as Lunden
did with her hay fever treatment.
Other companies use public figures to raise awareness of an
illness to spur visits to a doctor for treatment.
For instance, Pfizer, maker of Viagra the only pill available
for treatment of impotence will launch an educational campaign on
the disorder later this month featuring former Senate Majority
Leader Dole. Dole, who has acknowledged taking Viagra, won't
mention it by name in the ad.
Yet in other instances, the celebrities are hired guns who use
their reputation to pitch specific drugs.
Merck, the world's largest drug company, hired baseball star Cal
Ripkin to promote the company's Prinivil hypertension drug in ads
that appear in medical magazines. Ripkin, as the ads disclose, does
not suffer from high blood pressure.
"Cal symbolizes hard work and a solid work ethic," said Merck
spokesman John Bloomfield. "And Prinivil provides hard work ethic
against a disease."
Mickey Smith, professor of pharmaceutical administration at the
University of Mississippi, said the celebrity's believability is
key to making such campaigns work.
"The ads have to make sense," he said.
Two celebrities who suffer from migraines are working with
drugmakers to inform patients that new treatments are available.
Actress Jennie Garth, of Beverly Hills, 90210 fame, was hired
by Glaxo Wellcome, which sells the leading migraine medication
Imitrex. Novartis has contracted with Davis of the National
Football League to talk to groups about his experience with its
Migranol drug. Davis used the nasal spray during the 1998 Super
Bowl, which the Broncos won; Davis was named Most Valuable
Another example: Novartis Pharmaceuticals hired Maureen Reagan,
daughter of former President Reagan, to increase public knowledge
of Alzheimer's as it prepares to launch Exelon, a drug that delays
the onset of the disease.
"We wanted a spokesperson to be someone with personal
experience," said Novartis spokesman Harry Hohm.