OTC Pharmaceuticals Discovers the Secret to Trigger Sales

December 1, 2006

In the health world, women call the shots. They're the nation's biggest health consumers accounting for two out of three hospital procedures performed and health care dollars spent. They may not be the prime policy-holder, but women overwhelmingly make the decisions about their family's health plan and healthcare. So was it wise for pharmaceutical companies to shake their test tubes on the Super Bowl?

Many reckoned so. For one thing, women were watching in droves. For another, some pharmaceuticals are "gender-neutral." Others, like the erectile dysfunction remedies, address an area where men initiate purchases. Other times it's because a bargain comes along that is simply too good to pass up. That was the case in 1992 when Marion Merrell Dow became the first prescription drug advertiser in the big game.

Initially MMD had beamed its ads for the Nicoderm patch at medium and heavy smokers. Then it decided it wanted a wider awareness -to reach smokers' families and physicians. Its Super Bowl pitch for the patch: that it's more comforting than going cold turkey and an adjunct for willpower for two nicotine-starved airline bound travelers. Aesthetically the ad came up short: effectively it scored a touchdown. Eight years later those patches represented half of all nicotine-replacement products. But manufacturing could not keep up with demand. Analyzing its costs and the possible additional return on investment, MMD opted to save its future fire for events closer to New Year's Day, peak season for making resolutions to quit smoking.

For Bristol Myers Squib Co. also, it was a last minute bargain that propelled it into the same game (XXVI.) CBS had bartered with NBC for rights to broadcast the game so it could promote its upcoming Winter Olympics. But the recession gave CBS the kind of pain that even Bristol's Nuprin could not relieve. The JWT produced ad had no doctor's recommendation, list of ingredients, or device like pounding anvils inside vibrating heads that were mainstays of analgesic pitches. Instead, it had aging backache-sufferer Jimmy Connors who'd just lost to young Michael Chang in the French Open.

Was the ad theme "Nupe It" too blistering, too close to nuking someone and nuclear, the team worried. Or did adding athletes make it inoffensive jock talk? In the Super Bowl spot, Connors who had a reputation as a guy who fights and fights to stay alive on the court was paired with Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. Although only 15 seconds long, Nuprin's message served an ace. Sales immediately shot up.

In 1983 Johnson & Johnson made headlines for recalling Tylenol after criminal tampering resulted in several deaths. Thirteen years later it was back in the limelight with a Super Bowl spot. Reggie White leads a trio of NFL defensive stars on a nightmarish visit to Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, the young running back from Ohio State. They recommend that he try their OTC remedy for pain.

J&J (with manufacturing partner, Merck) had another OTC play in that game for its new Pepcid A.C. antacid. In the 1995 game, J&J showed the agonies of a long commute to pitch its anti-diarrhea Imodium AD and two years later, presented a fan in the same nasty predicament at a football game.

Technically, Breathe Right strips had been conceived in 1987 by Bruce Johnson, an allergy sufferer who used to shove a twist tie from a bread package up his nose so he could breathe easier. Ultimately he concocted a small adhesive plastic strip that spreads the nostrils from the outside-and licensed it to CNS. But really, Breathe Right nasal strips were birthed by the NFL. CNS sent samples to each NFL team, suggesting its players try them to sleep better before the game-or at least help the roommates sleep better.

Eagles' running back Herschel Walker, suffering from a cold, wore one in a 1994 game (prompting other players to think he'd broken his nose.) Word spread, fanned by CNS sending a photo of Walker wearing it to other teams. Deion Sanders, Ricky Watters, William Floyd and Jerry Rice of the 49ers wore them during the 1995 game, making the goofy-looking strip trendy. CNS made hay of the fact that eight of the 10 touchdowns in XXIX were scored by players wearing the strips.

In the 1886 game more players got onboard and CNS distributed samples to every game attendee. It also ran two spots that day. In one, a woman in a dark room asks her man to "wear one" and offers to put it on him. The sound of a package tearing open heightens the suspicion we're talking condom. But when the lights go on, we see it's a nasal strip so they both can sleep better. In the other, an annoyance meter registers snore levels of those not wearing Breathe Rights. Its sales soared from $2.8 million in 1994 to $86 million in 1996 and awareness from 25 to 75 percent.

Breathe Rights' lungs filled on praise from Rush Limbaugh and star athletes and from being plastered on icons like the Statue of Liberty and Mona Lisa. Then in 1996, research revealed the strips were useless. A subsequent Super Bowl spot temporarily stemmed the hemorrhage. But the wound was too dramatic and a month later, Breathe Right was breathing wrong. CNS tried again in the 2001 game coming out with strips in the colors of the competing teams. There was little breath left.

Super Plays/Take-Away
As a general rule, Super Bowl audiences won't sit still for dry "efficiency claims" or doctor endorsements or sage-on-the-stage wellness advice when they're keyed up for a nail-bitter. But several pharmaceutical companies found the right prescription to trigger sales of OTC products by presenting spokespeople the audience cares about (Nuprin) or becoming part of the fabric of the game itself (Breathe Right strips).


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.