Pfizer complains, advertising watchdog acts against Novartis Theraflu promo

Novartis ($NVS) claims its Theraflu Multi-Symptom Severe Cold "starts to get to work in your body in 5 minutes" after taking it. But competitor Pfizer ($PFE) isn't having it--and neither is the National Advertising Division (NAD).

NAD, an investigative unit administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, has recommended the Swiss pharma's consumer health unit stop that "5 minutes" claim. Pfizer had challenged the promo, arguing that the product's active ingredients--acetaminophen, dextromethorphan and phenylephrine--are standard in OTC severe cold remedies and don't provide relief especially quickly in Theraflu.

Novartis, for its part, argues that "starts to get to work" doesn't imply that its product begins to ease symptoms in 5 minutes. The statement is about absorption, and it said in its advertiser's statement that it launched an ad campaign to convey that absorption speed "based on strong scientific data," according to NAD.

But NAD saw things differently. Novartis' evidence consisted of a single study that did show acetaminophen could be observed in the bloodstream 5 minutes after administration. But Novartis "specifically stated that there was no correlation between rapid absorption of acetaminophen and symptom relief," the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council said in a statement.

It's a win for Pfizer, which sells its own range of cold-fighters, including Advil and Robitussin products. The company's consumer healthcare business is now wrapped up with vaccines and oncology as of a summer 2013 restructuring--and that's a unit the pharma giant has pegged for high growth.

Novartis' consumer health operations are undergoing some changes, too. The Basel-based drugmaker has gone to great lengths to get its OTC products back on track after a series of missteps at its Lincoln, NE, plant, which manufactured Theraflu. Shipments of the product only resumed last July after manufacturing issues forced a host of drugs off store shelves, and the company this year tapped actor and comedian Nick Cannon to promote the med in a quest to ramp up sales.

But as per last April's pact, control of its OTC business will soon belong to GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) as part of a joint venture the companies agreed to set up in 2015. The deal, part of a multibillion-dollar asset swap, will put the pair in the No. 1 spot in the worldwide OTC market--a position rivals like Bayer are coveting.

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