(CBS News) Merck's "Madagascar 3" campaign to sell Children's Claritin has sparked a call for a federal investigation from 11 advocacy groups.
The independent research and advocacy group, the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, sent a letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on behalf of 10 other organizations calling for an investigation into Merck & Co. Inc.'s marketing campaign for Grape-Flavored Chewable Children's Claritin. The company's campaign uses characters from the new animated movie "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted."
"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," Mark Gottlieb, executive director of PHAI, said in a press release.
The group contends that since the film's animated characters are also being used to license Airheads candy and General Mills Fruit Snacks, marketing children's Claritin using the same characters may create the impression that medicine is candy.
"The use of the same licensed characters on fruit-flavored [over-the-counter] allergy medication, children's candy and children's gummy snacks creates a very real danger of product confusion and may induce children to over-consume Grape-Flavored Children's Claritin allergy medication" the group wrote in the letter.
The group also cited a "Free Movie Ticket Offer" promotion with Claritin packages purchased at Walgreens, Claritin's Facebook page which offers free downloadable Madagascar-inspired games, and free stickers of Madagascar characters that are included in Children's Claritin packages.
Other evidence submitted by the group states that Merck told its "Children's Claritin Mom Crew" bloggers to hold Madagascar-themed viewing parties, with one blogger writing that Merck distributed "full size Claritin product featuring 'Madagascar 3,' product samples and coupons to share with my mommy friends, stickers for the kids, popcorn boxes and Madagascar 1 and 2 DVDs."
Other blogs cited in the group's letter show pictures of children holding their Claritin samples that mothers had posted.
The organizations want the FTC to act, noting the agency has regulated over-the-counter drug advertisements since 1977 when it found ads using Spider-Man to promote vitamins to children were unfair and deceptive, according to PHAI.
"Merck's 'Madagascar 3' campaign is its "first entertainment product tie-in" for Children's Claritin," the letter concludes. "Before this trade practice becomes widespread, the FTC must send a clear message that child-directed marketing of OTC drugs is unfair and deceptive and violates longstanding FTC precedent."
Merck spokeswoman Kelley Dougherty, told the New York Times that the company was reviewing the matter, and added, "We advertised in appropriate venues to reach those parents of children who may benefit from the use of Claritin, and not to the children themselves."
FTC spokeswoman Cecelia Prewett told Bloomberg that the agency received the complaint but declined further comment.