Gardasil Campaign Taps Public Fear of Cancer

Nov 29, 2006
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors
Issue 1

Merck appears to be banking on the public's fear of the "C" word in promoting its new HPV vaccine. Initial branded advertisements for the vaccine, called Gardasil, use messaging that focuses on cancer prevention rather than the less comfortable topic of sexually transmitted diseases.

The ads, which have started popping up in women's magazines and during women's prime time television programs, feature teen and preteen girls jumping rope, shooting hoops, and playing the drums--while pledging to become "one less" cervical cancer statistic. The spots, created by ad agency DDB New York, also feature images of mothers and daughters, and close with a take-action appeal: "get vaccinated."

"It's a powerful message," said Megan Svensen, executive vice president and director of the healthcare practice at Marina Maher Communications, a public relations agency that specializes in marketing to women. "It reinforces a positive action as well as a positive benefit."

For Evelyn Sprigg, senior vice president in the healthcare practice at Lippe Taylor, Merck's campaign parallels the PR agency's own outreach effort to educate women about Digene's HPV test. Focusing on cervical cancer--rather than HPV alone--is "the smart and appropriate thing to do."

"The real impact is on cervical cancer," she said. "That's the area where consumers are emotionally connected. Women don't think they're at risk for cervical cancer."

The campaign is the follow-up to Merck's disease education outreach, which includes the spots "Tell Someone" and "Make the Connection." The unbranded effort tries to build awareness around the idea that the human papillomavirus can sometimes cause cervical cancer, and features newly enlightened young women promising to tell their friends and family about the link.

Merck will continue to sponsor disease awareness programs by providing funds to local and national organizations--particularly those that reach out to underserved communities--that are bookmarked for HPV education.

Compared with the disease awareness effort, the new advertising campaign skews slightly younger. The vaccine is approved for girls and women ages 9 to 26, and the faces featured in the spots span that age group.

But Sprigg noted that it's important for Merck to have different messages for each audience--young girls and their mothers, teenagers, women in their 20s, and older women who want more information about what to do next.

More than 95 insurance plans--covering 94 percent of insured individuals--have decided to reimburse Gardasil, according to Merck. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also added the vaccine to its Vaccines for Children Contract, making it available to Medicaid-eligible, uninsured, under-insured, or Native American children up to the age of 18.

Analysts are optimistic about the vaccine's market potential. "It's very clear that patients are going to be interested in it," said John Lebbos, MD, therapeutic area director of infectious diseases at market research firm Decision Resources. "From what I've seen, it's going to be a blockbuster."

Education about the vaccine is going to be a critical piece--due both to a lack of understanding about HPV as well as early controversy that vaccination might lead to teen promiscuity.

"There's still a tremendous amount of awareness about HPV they'll need to reinforce," said Svensen, who praised the way the ads portrayed vaccination as a family decision. "It takes years of constant reinforcement before people know they need to do something about this."

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