Merck under fire for marketing meds to kids

An advertisement for Claritin and "Madagascar 3." Merck’s use of cartoon animals from “Madagascar 3” has prompted a complaint that grape-flavored Claritin allergy medicine could be confused for candy.

Kai Ryssdal: From the Marketplace desk of 'What Could Possibly Go Wrong?' comes this today: A partnership between Merck, the pharmaceutical company, and Dreamworks, the movie studio. There's nothing new about studios pairing up to capitalize on a new movie they've got coming out. In this case, "Madagasgar 3." Usually it's Happy Meal toys or pajamas or something. This time, allergy medicine.

Merck is going to market Claritin using the neurotic giraffe and insecure lion and the rest of the gang from the film. Marketplace's Sally Herships has the story.


Sally Herships: Have you seen "Madagascar 3?" There are talking animals and a bear in a pink tutu with a tricycle and a bow on her head. You can buy "Madagscar" penguin-shaped gummies. Or you can get Claritin -- the kid's allergy medication now comes with animals from the movie on its box.

Cara Wilking: It basically creates the impression that it's candy.

Cara Wilking is a lawyer with the Public Health Advocacy Institute. She says all the zebras, lions and penguins on the Claritin packaging could confuse kids and that's dangerous.

Wilking: Kids' requests for medicine should be based on how they're feeling and not on sophisticated marketing campaigns.

And Wilking says it's just not fair to market over-the-counter drugs to children. So she helped draft a complaint to the FTC. Dreamworks, which made "Madagascar," wouldn't comment. And Merck, the company that makes Claritin, didn't respond to requests for comment.

But Merck is highly profitable -- for now. Tom O'Connor advises health care companies on mergers. He says the whole industry is nervous about the future.

Tom O'Connor: It takes them 15 years and multi-billions of dollars to get an entity from molecule to on the shelf.

And then their patents run out. So, pharmaceutical companies are looking to leverage drugs they already have. And for new ways to connect with consumers, like a "Madagscar" activity guide on Claritin's Facebook page.

Patti Williams teaches marketing at Wharton.

Patti Williams: They're just trying to find their way to these sorts of cutting-edge techniques -- just like every company is -- it's just that within pharma it's fraught with a little more risk.

So Merck may have to turn to its own anti-anxiety medicine while the FTC reviews the case.

I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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