Roche has retained advertising agency GSW Worldwide to launch a new consumer-focused campaign for antiviral drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate).
GSW will handle all consumer advertising and promotion, media planning and placement, and direct marketing. The effort is expected to begin later this year.
Roche had previously worked with Young & Rubicam on an educational campaign around flu in 2000, but scaled back its advertising efforts in recent years.
A spokesman for Roche declined to discuss the reasons behind the company's decision to ramp up its outreach efforts, or the content of the advertisements.
Tamiflu treats common flu strains that appear each winter. Animal studies suggest that it might also be effective against the deadly avian flu, and governments worldwide have begun stockpiling the drug.
But as avian flu activity escalates worldwide, Tamiflu has been at the center of several controversies ranging from patent disputes to how it should be distributed in the event of a pandemic.
Marketing experts, therefore, suggest that the company be delicate in its approach to mass marketing a product that could play a critical role during a public health crisis.
John Mack, president of VirSci, a pharma marketing consulting firm, and publisher of the Pharma Marketing Blog, pointed to the limitations of DTC advertising to communicate nuanced messages. He suggested that Roche instead focus on targeted outreach to at-risk populations and on physician education.
"I don't think the typical type of DTC will serve the public well," Mack said. "The advertising could lead to a situation where there's hording and there's going to be short supply. They should be preparing physicians to deal with these sorts of issues."
If Tamiflu's Web site is any indication, the campaign will likely focus on the message that patients only have 48 hours from the onset of their symptoms to begin treatment. Earlier this year, Roche also released a desktop flu tracker that allows users to track local and national flu activity.
Kurt Wise, a communication professor at DePaul University, noted that the impetus for Roche's campaign might be less about drug sales than corporate reputation.
"If it can be handled in a tasteful, non-threatening manner, it could be quite successful," Wise said about the effort. "It could come off looking extremely responsible."
But Roche would need to avoid messages that imply that a pandemic is "imminent" or "assured," and instead focus on a theme, like preparedness, Wise noted. "In general, preparedness is understandable, not frowned upon, and generally positively received."