A CAMPAIGN FOR AIDS DRUG ADDS WARNING
By Stuart Elliott
New York Times 10 May 2001
A leading maker of drugs that fight AIDS, the Agouron Pharmaceuticals
division of Pfizer, and its agency, CCA Advertising in New York, are
changing a consumer campaign they recently introduced for the drug
Viracept. They are adding cautionary words that such drugs are not a cure
for AIDS nor do they prevent the spread of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.
The change is coming two weeks after the Food and Drug Administration sent
letters to eight makers of anti-AIDS drugs, including Agouron, warning that
those products could no longer be advertised without noting their
limitations. The letters also warned against running ads with images that
are "not generally representative" of patients with H.I.V., particularly
photographs of "robust individuals engaged in strenuous physical activity"
like climbing mountains.
The warning letters and the advisory being added to the Viracept campaign
coincide with a growing debate about whether ads for H.I.V. drugs are too
optimistic in their portrayals of patients "living with AIDS." Critics
contend the ads may contribute to a rise in the rate of H.I.V. infections
among impressionable people who perceive AIDS as no more debilitating than
a cold or other minor ailment.
That debate has intensified since March, when preliminary results of a
survey by the San Francisco health department found that gay men who had
frequently seen AIDS drug ads featuring buff models in glamorous poses were
more likely to engage in unsafe sex.
The dissension over ads for AIDS drugs is part of a larger dispute centered
on the appropriateness of all advertising for prescription drugs aimed at
consumers rather than doctors and health care professionals. Such
campaigns, called direct-to- consumer advertising, have proliferated in
recent years as the F.D.A. relaxed strictures against them.
But a backlash has been building over the decision to apply the tactics of
consumer advertising — like images of attractive, active people with H.I.V.
in ads for AIDS drugs — to the selling of prescription drugs, especially as
the drug makers pour billions of dollars into direct-to-consumer campaigns.
The benefits that Viracept can "bring to people's lives" warrant
advertising it directly to them, said Catherine O'Connor, manager for
consumer marketing at Agouron in LaJolla, Calif. "We knew there was an
emotional connection we could make with people with H.I.V., the same type
of emotional connection we could make with physicians."
However, since hiring CCA last fall to produce a new campaign for Viracept,
with annual spending estimated at $5 million, Agouron has sought ads with a
"real, humanistic approach" that were "not like what was already out
there," she added.
"From a marketing point of view, you could understand what they were trying
to do, asking people to relate the powerful activities to the power of the
drug," Ms. O'Connor said. "I don't think they were saying `If you take this
drug, you can climb mountains.' "
"But people want to see themselves in the advertising," she added. "If you
see someone mountain- climbing, you want to relate that to yourself."
The campaign for Viracept by CCA, carrying the theme "Plan your future with
Viracept," features portrait-style photographs of H.I.V. patients. They are
seen standing as if in caught in a moment or thought or reflection rather
than engaged in strenuous pursuits.
There are words next to the portraits that Ms. O'Connor described as
"affirmations," like "Because where I go from here is up to me" and
"Because I may be scared but I'm not alone." And while generally healthy
looking, none could be described as Adonises or Venuses.
"We've focused on the efficacy of the drug and not on beautiful, buff
people," said Mike Devlin, creative director at CCA.
"This is a tough disease, with tough choices," he added, and the campaign
is intended to offer Viracept as "a choice, not the answer."
Mr. Devlin compared the debate over the role the attractive images may play
in encouraging risky sexual behavior to the debate over the role that video
games and violent television programs may play in "making kids shoot up
"There's a level of personal responsibility, regardless of the images
around you," Mr. Devlin said. "Reminding people about prevention is not a
bad measure; maybe they'll say they should take the extra step and not be
The decision to add the advisory was in the works before Agouron received
the warning letter from the F.D.A., Mr. Devlin and Ms. O'Connor said,
adding that the line to be included in all future Viracept ads will read
"H.I.V. drugs do not cure H.I.V. infection or prevent you from spreading
The images in the ads are not being changed, they said, because the
photographs of the models, all H.I.V.-positive, were already generally
representative of H.I.V. patients and not unrealistically glossy.
The Viracept campaign replaces ads centered on images of animals, intended
as visual metaphors for the drug's effectiveness. Those ads were created by
Mulryan/Nash in New York, which closed. The new campaign is starting to
appear in May issues of more than 100 magazines and newspapers read
primarily by gay men, lesbians and H.I.V. patients; they range from
national publications like The Advocate, Out and Poz to local publications
for resort communities including Fire Island and Rehoboth Beach, Del.
"There's something to be said" for the argument that many ads for AIDS
drugs are "maybe a little too glamorous," said Todd Evans, president and
chief executive at Rivendell Marketing in Westfield, N.J., which sells ad
space for publications read by gay men and lesbians and is handling the
media services for the Viracept account.
"But it's advertising," he added, and glamorous imagery is often "what
advertising is all about."
Since the warning letters were sent, Mr. Evans said, he was told by
executives at one maker of AIDS drugs that they "are going to sit it out
for a couple of months" and stop advertising "to see where this goes."
"I'm concerned as a gay person that if you take the profitability from
H.I.V. drugs, the companies will go on to larger markets with greater
profits," he added.
Mr. Evans said one benefit of the "glamorized ads" for AIDS drugs that have
come under fire has been "they took away some of the horrendous stigma"
attached to being H.I.V.-positive.
"I won't say maybe they did too good a job," he added, but perhaps adding
cautions to the campaigns "is not such a bad thing."