Pfizer Inc. resumed television ads today for the cholesterol pill Lipitor, the world's top-selling drug, six months after stopping commercials with artificial-heart inventor Robert Jarvik that led to a congressional investigation.
The new ads use a California talent agent named John Erlendson, who had a heart attack at age 57 after not taking drugs for his high cholesterol. Pfizer, based in New York, scheduled the commercials to begin airing during ABC's "Good Morning America."
Pfizer halted its last Lipitor advertising campaign in February after a congressional committee began probing whether the ads deceived consumers because Jarvik, who isn't licensed to practice medicine, gave medical advice.
Jarvik was widely credited with inventing the artificial heart but several of his colleagues at the University of Utah have since contested his overall contribution to the medical advancement.
Pfizer is counting on the new ads with a real patient to boost Lipitor prescriptions, which fell 15 percent in the U.S. since the Jarvik ads stopped.
"John is a user of Lipitor who was willing to appear in an ad," said Jim Sage, senior director of Pfizer's Lipitor marketing team. "It is a really unique approach across the industry. John really resonates with the audience because he provides a wake-up call."
Erlendson, 58, was paid an actors' union wage of $1,400 a day during the two to three days the one-minute ad was filmed, Sage said. The commercials, titled "Never Thought," shows Erlendson bicycling near a river and picnicking with his family while an announcer promotes Lipitor's safety and effectiveness. The ads devote 15 seconds to Lipitor's side effects and 45 seconds to benefits.
Won't disclose cost
Pfizer wouldn't say how much it plans to spend on the ads or how frequently they will appear. The company, the world's largest drugmaker, spent $181 million advertising Lipitor last year, making it the fourth-most-advertised drug, according to market research firm Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Pfizer paid Jarvik $1.35 million for the earlier campaign.
Lipitor, Pfizer's most important product, had sales of $12.7 billion last year, about a quarter of the company's revenue. U.S. Lipitor sales have been slipping since 2006, when cheaper copies of a similar cholesterol pill, Merck & Co.'s Zocor, came on the market.
Pfizer shares rose 6 cents, less than a percent, to $19.17 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The company has dropped 16 percent this year.
Drugmakers spent $5.4 billion last year on direct-to- consumer advertising in all media, said Nielsen Monitor-Plus. That's a fivefold increase in the decade since new U.S. rules allowed drugmakers to advertise their products more easily. New Zealand is the only other country that allows drug ads on television.
Lawmakers at a House subcommittee hearing in May said many drug ads minimize medicines' side effects and may encourage overuse of expensive products. Members of Congress, led by Representatives John Dingell and Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrats, have called for stricter regulations. The American Medical Association asked for a moratorium on ads for newly approved drugs until doctors are educated and U.S. regulators have signed off on the messages.
"Pharmaceutical companies should consider it a privilege to be allowed to air" direct-to-consumer ads, said Stupak, at the May hearing. "As with all privileges, there comes responsibility."
Pfizer said its new ad includes suggestions made by the Food and Drug Administration, which has 24 employees responsible for making sure drug advertising accurately portrays risks and benefits. The FDA reviewed 20,000 pieces of direct-to-consumer advertising last year and took an average of five months to warn drugmakers that violated the rules, according to a Government Accountability Office report in May.
Erlendson said he won the commercial's starring role after his talent agency responded to the Pfizer ad agency's request for a heart-attack patient who was taking Lipitor. Before his heart attack a year ago, Erlendson knew he had high cholesterol and thought he could treat it by losing weight and watching his diet, he said.
"How many people like me are out there who really think they are doing things to prevent a heart attack and are ahead of the game, and how many end up having heart attacks and are lucky enough to survive?" Erlendson said.