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Selling Drugs With Celebrities

Former presidential nominee Bob Dole admits he takes Viagra. The perfectly composed Joan Lunden suffers from itchy eyes and sneezing. Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis fights migraine headaches. All three are helping drug makers pitch their medications.

"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.

Drug makers began using celebrities to market to consumers last year. Before that, the industry's sole focus was promoting its products to doctors.

Using celebrities to advertise drugs comes amid an explosion in consumer advertising since the Food and Drug Administration loosened restraints on TV and radio commercials for prescription drugs in August 1997.

In July, Schering-Plough became the first pharmaceutical firm to use a celebrity in a direct-to-consumer national television campaign. It tapped Lunden to promote its prescription allergy pill Claritin.

The company wouldn't say how much she was paid. Analysts have speculated about $1 million a year. The payoff for Schering-Plough: Claritin worldwide sales soared by 35 percent last year to $2.3 billion, including $1.9 billion in the United States.

"We saw this as the next step to reach out to consumers," said Schering-Plough spokesman Bob Consalvo.

Celebrity endorsements 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 prescribe their medications, said Ed Mathers, vice president consumer health-care marketing for Glaxo Wellcome.

Some times, drug companies use celebrities 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 this month featuring former Senate Majority Leader Dole. Dole, who has acknowledged taking Viagra, won't mention it by name in the ad.

In other instances, celebrities use their reputations to make the pitch. Merck, the world's largest drug company, hired baseball star Cal Ripken to promote the company's Prinivil hypertension drug in ads that appear in medical magazines. Ripken, as the ads disclose, doesn't suffer from high blood pressure.

"Cal symbolizes hard work and a solid work ethic, and Prinivil provides hard work ethic against a disease," said Merck spokesman John Bloomfield.

Football player Terrell Davis has been hired by Novartis to talk to groups of migraine sufferers about his experience with its Migranol drug. He suffered a migraine attack during the 1998 Super Bowl and used the nasal spray to head it off. The drug helped Davis stay in the game by preventing him from being sidelied by the severe headache. The Broncos went on to win the game and Davis was named Most Valuable Player.

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