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Baldness Drug Infomercial Raises Hair of Some in Medical Community


Upjohn Corp. has launched the first-ever program-length commercial for a prescription drug, pushing pharmaceutical marketing to a new level but raising anew concerns about the appropriateness of pitching such drugs directly to consumers.

The infomercial is for Rogaine, an anti-baldness drug that has never met the sales expectations that accompanied its introduction seven years ago. The 30-minute pitch is directed at women, evidently the most promising customers for the drug, which is sold to both men and women.

Other drug companies are expected to eventually follow Upjohn's lead as they look for new ways to reach consumers directly.

"I think absolutely you'll see it," said Steven Dworman, publisher of the Infomercial Marketing Report in Los Angeles. Such large companies as Apple Computer and Sony are producing infomercials, giving what was once a commercial backwater the aura of respectability important to prescription drug marketers.

Upjohn said it turned to the infomercial format because government restrictions prevent it from making claims about Rogaine in a 30-second spot. The government requires drug firms making claims to provide details about side effects and dosage--too much information to cram into a typical commercial.

"It is an opportunity to provide more information to the consumer and educate them about hair loss, and if they are motivated, to see a doctor," said Steven Bradford, senior product manager for Rogaine.

But some people in the medical community don't see it that way. Dr. Marcus Reidenberg, editor of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, a medical journal, said people may latch on to the hopeful news about a drug and ignore any downside.

"The issue is really between what people are told and what they hear," Reidenberg said. "On principle, I can't object to informing sick people about drugs that are available. In practice, I worry about people being deceived--even without the intent to deceive on the part of the advertiser."

Upjohn said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviewed the infomercial before it aired. The company followed the agency's guidelines for the spot, forgoing use of testimonials, for example.

The infomercial follows a talk-show format, hosted by actress Cindy Williams of the old TV series "Laverne & Shirley." She discusses hair loss with an Upjohn executive, a dermatologist and a hair stylist who offers tips on dealing with thinning hair.

Williams says that "literally millions" of women experience hair loss. "It's much more common for women than people suppose."

At the same time, the infomercial points out that Rogaine works only on hair loss that is hereditary, and even then not on everyone. At one point, a graph compares the success of Rogaine on a test group of women compared to the reported reaction to a placebo. No regrowth was reported by 43% of women using Rogaine and 60% of women using the placebo.

The information on side effects comes at the end of the infomercial. It is in type and takes six minutes to scroll by.

Upjohn's Bradford acknowledged that not every viewer will stick with the infomercial to the end to read the lengthy notice. But, he said, anyone calling a toll-free number that also appears in the infomercial will be mailed the information.

Dr. William Jacott, a trustee of the American Medical Assn., said that, as a practical matter, some people may simply call their doctor after viewing the infomercial and obtain a prescription over the phone. These people might not realize the drug will not help them unless they had paid close attention to the infomercial, he said.

"The problem with putting the information at the end is, with the way we watch TV, it is tempting to start jumping off at that point," Jacott said.

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