Subtle Approach In Celeb Drug Ads

actress (and former Charlie's Angels co-star) Cheryl Ladd, 1-11-02
Like millions of women going through menopause, actress Cheryl Ladd quit taking hormone pills after research showed risks of breast cancer, stroke and heart attack.

But after months of horrible hot flashes and disrupted sleep, the star of the 1970s TV series "Charlie's Angels" says she was so miserable, she resumed taking a hormone drug after consulting her doctor. Now she's doing ads urging women to talk to their doctors or visit a Web site,

The site is sponsored by Wyeth, maker of leading hormone replacement pills Prempro and Premarin, and Wyeth's logo appears in the TV ad. Ladd's subtle promotion is the latest twist in the 7-year-old practice of celebrities promoting drugs, whether they use them or not: Rather than pitch a specific medicine, the celebrities make you "aware" of suffering you might have overlooked and usually point you to a Web site sponsored by a company selling a treatment for that condition.

Such ads don't have to mention any drug risks.

From sports figures like Jack Nicklaus to movie stars like Sylvester Stallone, dozens of famous people have been on TV in recent years urging consumers to ask their doctors for specific prescription drugs for everything from depression to cancer.

Now, more of those celebrities want to make you "aware" of problems you might not know about or even have. Experts say the shift is because of concerns over medication safety and criticism from medical and consumer groups that ads minimize drug risks. They also point to talk in Congress about new regulations, possibly banning consumer ads until a drug has been on sale for a year, allowing time for rare side effects to emerge.

"Definitely there has been an increase in spending" on disease awareness ads this year, said Stu Klein, president of Quantum, a health care advertising company in Parsippany, N.J. "What 2005 will probably show is that percentage going up."

Ad spending monitor TNS Media notes consumer drug ad spending, which totaled $4.4 billion in 2004, actually dipped 1.5 percent in the first five months of this year, compared to that period last year — the first time it hasn't gone up. But the percentage of disease awareness ads that don't mention a specific product doubled to 4.6 percent of all network TV drug ads from January through April, said TNS research director Jon Swallen.