Case Study : For One Pharmaceutical Group, a PSA Serves Up a Dose of Reality

Company: Purdue Pharma Agency: Fenn Communications Group/The McGinn Group Timeframe: Six months Budget: $2.5 million Potent prescription pain medications have seen their fair share of publicity in recent years, with personalities as large as Rush Limbaugh among the list of abusers, but the message is becoming increasingly urgent: Of the four million+ Americans misusers, the largest increase has been among teenagers who filch the pills from their parents' medicine cabinets. That's why, in late 2003, Purdue Pharma - maker of OxyContin - took a stand in a widespread Public Service Announcement (PSA) against the critical health problem. Although OxyContin was not specifically mentioned in the PSA, appropriately dubbed the "Medicine Cabinet" campaign, it - and other prescription-strength pain-killers' - ability to induce a heroin-like euphoria was the crux of the problem. While its medicinal effects were clear and necessary, teenagers began to take the pills recreationally, believing that they weren't as dangerous as street drugs because they came from a doctor. Thus, Purdue Pharma chose to distance itself from the problem by becoming part of the solution. Teaming up with Fenn Communications Group and the McGinn Group, it spearheaded a campaign that involved television, newspaper, radio and billboard calls to action, centered around images of a teen raiding his parents' medicine cabinet. The message was an important one: Drug abuse has become dangerously close to home, no longer being relegated to street corners in inner city communities. The campaign had to reflect that reality accordingly. "This isn't a McDonald's advertising campaign," Peter Fenn, president of Fenn Communications, said in a New York Times interview. "It's serious and it's over the long term." Serious indeed, not just because of the message, but because of the financial risks associated with addressing a problem your product helped create. It's a challenge communications professionals face all too often, but it's also an opportunity to demonstrate social responsibility. For Purdue Pharma, the impact of OxyContin's dark underbelly was not insignificant: With news of the abuse came a proposal to reduce the list of the kinds of pain for which the drug can be prescribed. Some pharmacies went so far as to stop stocking the pills for fear of being robbed by desperate addicts. So what is the best plan of attack when reputation is on the line? Get out in front of the story - and an audience Purdue Pharma went straight to the source, conducting more than 30 focus groups, mall tests in eight cities, two test-market polls and a national opinion survey of 1,200 respondents. Once the research was compiled, it launched the campaign in 21 media markets in 15 states where the drug abuse was most prevalent. The pharmaceutical company also knew that its key demographics in need of education were two-fold. On one hand, there were parents and grandparents who kept their medicine cabinets well-stocked and unsupervised. On the other: teenagers who assumed prescription drugs weren't as detrimental as the street varieties like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. To communicate with the latter audience, the outreach included a Web site with information conveyed in a raw, honest way. Don't make excuses "We never anticipated that OxyContin would become popular with drug abusers," Robin Hogen, vice president for public affairs at Purdue Pharma, said at the beginning of the effort. But, once it was clear that it was indeed a hit, he pointed to the corporation's aggressive response that cost more than $130 million in advertising and other efforts (the PSA specifically was budgeted at $2.5 million). Be part of the solution, not the problem Despite the fact that the drug that generated more than $1.3 billion in sales in 2002 would take a financial hit, Purdue Pharma took proactive measures to specify who the drug was meant for, and who it wasn't. With the help of its PR agencies, the company produced an action kit and partnered with organizations to fight prescription drug abuse on a national level. And the results paid off. The success of the "Medicine Cabinet" television PSA was measured against spots produced for Ford Motor Company, Budweiser and Bristol Myers-Squibb. While the three competitors were viewed as very effective by 24 percent, 27 percent and 16 percent of polled viewers, respectively, the "Medicine Cabinet" ad was rated very effective by 48 percent. What's more, the ad recall was 76 percent, and believability led the competition with 52 percent. Given the heavy issues Purdue Pharma's PSA went up against - youth drinking, public service and curing cancer - its success in delivering its message to a broad audience is surely worthy of emulation. Contact: Peter Fenn, 202.337.6995

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