NEW YORK --
But public relations specialists are calling the campaign predictable and say it lacks a crucial element necessary to bolster assertions by the firm -- based in Whitehouse Station, N.J. -- that it acted in a responsible and timely fashion to remove Vioxx from the market: Parties with no self-interest or financial ties to the company coming to its defense.
"When people read ads, they discount them, because they know the company paid for them," said Howard Rubenstein, president of the New York-based public relations firm Rubenstein Associates, whose crisis-management clients have included
"What they did was appropriate, sure," Rubenstein said. "But they really need some third-party endorsements."
He added that Merck's strategy of asserting that it withdrew Vioxx immediately upon learning there was a link between the drug and a higher risk of heart attack and strokes could backfire if plaintiffs' lawyers prove that the company understood the side effects much earlier and stifled the news.
Estimates of Vioxx's legal costs have varied widely, from $4 billion to $18 billion.
Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market Sept. 30, after a study indicated that patients taking it for 18 months had double the risk of heart attacks and strokes than those taking a placebo. A series of internal e-mails and company memos leaked to the press beginning on Nov. 1 suggested that the company knew about the side effects long before the drug was withdrawn. Since then, the US Food and Drug Administration has released a report that said Vioxx may have contributed to an additional 27,785 heart attacks or deaths from 1999 to 2003, and a study in the respected medical journal The Lancet contended that Merck should have taken the drug off the market years ago.
Merck has said that the memos and e-mails have been taken out of context and that it acted responsibly, withdrawing the drug when it fully understood the problem. It said studies such as the one published by the FDA researcher, which mine past patient medical records for information, are not as scientifically valid as controlled clinical trials.
The company also said The Lancet's analysis of 29 Vioxx studies did not include two studies more favorable to its drug.
The ad campaign began with a full-page ad in The New York Times on Friday, Nov. 12, which said Merck's actions on Vioxx were "consistent with putting the interests of patients first as well as with faithful adherence to the best principles of scientific discipline and transparency." Two different full-page ads followed in several newspapers. Starting last Friday, all three ads began running simultaneously in papers including The New York Times, The
Over the course of last week, Merck's chairman Raymond Gilmartin appeared on several news shows to defend the company. He testified before Congress last Thursday at a hearing examining the Vioxx withdrawal.
Gilmartin said his wife was taking Vioxx until the moment it was withdrawn.