Ehrlich, who marketed Lipitor when Parke-Davis launched what would become the nation's best-selling drug, said there is little evidence that celebrity pitches are more effective than other advertising. In fact, one company replaced a star with a patient who proved to be more popular with consumers.
Allergan dropped actress Janine Turner as its spokeswoman for Restasis, a remedy for chronic dry eye. Now, Ashley Campbell, a previously anonymous Restasis user, is the smiling face patients see when they visit the drug's Web site. Market research indicated consumers reacted more positively to "someone they could relate to," said Heather Katt, an Allergan spokeswoman.
But Ehrlich, Kleber and the FDA agree that no one raises disease awareness better than a bigger-than-life star.
Ortho Biotech Products, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that makes Procrit, an anemia drug used by kidney disease patients, tapped NBA star Alonzo Mourning to spread the word about the health condition that almost ended his career. Lorraine Bracco, who plays a psychiatrist on HBO's The Sopranos, discussed her depression in advertising sponsored by Pfizer Inc. Actress Cheryl Ladd addressed menopause in a campaign funded by Wyeth. And former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani suggested men of a certain age get checked for prostate cancer, following in the footsteps of former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, whose appearances in Viagra ads are credited with persuading more men to discuss erectile dysfunction with their doctors.
Drug manufacturers have increased spending on such disease-awareness campaigns this year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
In the first eight months of 2005, companies spent $273.6 million advertising their corporate brands and building disease awareness, with $43.4 million spent in August compared with $24.5 million spent in January. They devoted another $3.4 million to campaigns, like the ads featuring Bracco, that pointed consumers to brand or disease awareness Web sites, with $2.2 million spent in August compared with $354,252 spent in January.
That is still dwarfed by the $2.8 billion the industry devoted to traditional product-specific drug advertising from January to August.