It was Mickey Mouse who started it all. Back in 1934, the iconic cartoon mouse generated $600,000 in merchandise sales for its creator, Walt Disney - a staggering sum for the era. Although it was during the Great Depression, Disney was able to save his struggling film company and his business partners from bankruptcy – including the Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Company, maker of the first Mickey Mouse watches.
It wasn’t until 1978, however, that the modern age of movie merchandising really took off. George Lucas cashed in on the trend with $2.6 billion worth of the collectible toys he sold based on his original Star Wars trilogy.
For the first time in history, a movie producer partnered with a toy company (in this case, a young company called Kenner) to create little 3 3/4″ high collectible “action figures” as well as assorted Star Wars toys, books, lunch boxes, backpacks, etc. (My kids’ rooms were filled with these!) Even the popular TV sitcom Modern Family recently featured a discussion between Mitchell and Cam about their favourite Luke Skywalker collectible – “Luke wearing the shorty robe”.
But today, the release of a new movie includes the launch of corporate partnerships that not only sell action figures, but help push over-the-counter drugs for children.
The movie in question is called Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the latest box office success in the Dreamworks Animation series that was released in June. The fun franchise follows the adventures of four Central Park Zoo animals who have spent their lives in happy captivity until they are unexpectedly shipped back to Africa.
As part of its first-ever entertainment product tie-in, the drug giant Merck (and its subsidiary Schering-Plough) – makers of Children’s Claritin allergy medicine – climbed onboard the very lucrative movie merchandising bandwagon, as reported in the New York Times.
The company released customized packaging on its Grape Chewables and Grape Syrup medicine featuring free Madagascar 3-themed stickers.
Additionally, a “Free Movie Ticket Offer” promotion was administered with every product purchase at Walgreens. On its Facebook page, the drugmakers offered a free, downloadable Madagascar-inspired Circus Activity Guide and a Madagascar-themed Circus Stackers game.
Merck also supported the film with online, television and print advertising, as well as a full social media program.
Why slap Madagasgar-themed images and movie tie-ins onto children’s drugs like this?
Children may not pay the bills, but they do have what’s known in marketing circles as “pester power”, an innate children’s ability to nag their parents into purchasing items they may not otherwise buy. Thus marketing to children is all about creating pester power, because advertisers know what a powerful force it can be.
But this child-focused marketing campaign has outraged about a dozen consumer advocacy groups, who last month sent a letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. They demanded that the agency investigate the drugmaker for using cartoon characters from the Madagascar film in an “inherently unfair,” “deceptive” and “dangerous” way to promote its Children’s Claritin medicines.
The advocacy groups included the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, which was joined by Berkeley Media Studies Group; Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood; Center for Digital Democracy; Corporate Accountability International; Eat Drink Politics and Public Citizen, among others. They wrote:
“This campaign is in violation of longstanding FTC precedent to protect children from child-directed marketing of Over The Counter supplements and, by extension, OTC drugs.”
The FTC precedent they mentioned was set in 1977 regarding marketing to children, when the agency ruled that Spiderman could not be used in television and print ads to market vitamins directly to children, including these findings:
“Children are unqualified by age or experience to decide for themselves whether or not they need or should use … an advertised brand in particular, thus the directing of advertisements to children is in itself an unfair practice.”
The dozen protesting consumer groups added in their letter to the FTC:
“The Madagascar campaign for Children’s Claritin may induce children to request Merck’s brand-name OTC drug, describe symptoms in order to get a sticker or to get medicine perceived to be candy.”
Although it’s unusual – some might say highly unethical – for a pharmaceutical company to specifically target its children’s market by aligning with a kids’ movie, the long list of at least 15 other corporate sponsors helping Dreamworks to publicize this movie (while of course helping to sell product for these sponsors) is impressive.
This issue is even further complicated by debate on just how effective Claritin actually is in reducing allergy symptoms. (The FDA official assigned to review Schering’s application to approve Claritin told the company that a 10-milligram dose of Claritin – the adult dosage marketed today – did not appear to be very effective). A comprehensive New York Times article investigating Claritin’s overblown claims of efficacy explains how early research published favoured the drug over the actual facts:
“All studies sponsored by drug companies tend to show an advantage for the company’s own products.
“Zyrtec, an antihistamine produced by Pfizer, for example, has been shown to be more potent than other drugs in its antihistamine effect – in a study sponsored by Pfizer. Desloratadine, called the next generation ”super-Claritin,” is said to relieve nasal stuffiness, unlike other antihistamines – in a study done by its maker, Schering. And Allegra, produced by Aventis, was recently shown to be equal to Zyrtec – in a study sponsored by Aventis.
”They’re going to take that study all the way to the bank,” one academic allergist chuckled. Which is precisely the point. Scientific studies of these drugs serve as marketing tools, providing drug-company salesmen with their best lines.”
Q: Is Merck’s marketing relationship with Dreamworks the slippery slope in marketing to children?
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