Merck launches first TV advertising for cruising Keytruda in lung cancer

Merck’s immuno-oncology drug Keytruda is finally on TV. The first TV ad began airing this week, featuring one patient and her “Tru Story” of lung cancer survival. The ad highlights the importance of PD-L1 biomarkers in Keytruda treatment.

From Keytruda's launch in 2015, Merck has taken a decidedly different approach to marketing than has its key competitor, Opdivo-maker Bristol-Myers Squibb. Merck has, until now, mostly pushed its checkpoint inhibitor through professional journal advertising targeting healthcare professionals, while BMS moved quickly after Opdivo's rollout to the mass market with a big TV campaign.

In just a few days, Merck has spent $1.2 million on TV ads, while Bristol-Myers Squibb has spent more than $140 million on two Opdivo TV ads since launching the campaign in late September 2015, according to realtime TV tracker BMS has also faced a backlash for the TV ads, spurred by a New York Times op-ed—penned by a man whose wife died of lung cancer after failing to respond to the therapy—that labeled Opdivo TV advertising "misleading and exploitive." That piece stirred up controversy and hundreds of comments.

Bristol-Myers Squibb CEO Giovanni Caforio, though, has defended the DTC move, calling it a "conscious" and "important" decision on an earnings call after the campaign first began. "We feel there is a long history of treatments that have not delivered significant value to patients with lung cancer. There is pessimism for many patients. … We felt it was important to invest in a campaign," he said, as quoted by Advertising Age.

The same Opdivo-Keytruda disparity in spending held true across general print ad spending, with BMS spending $109 million on Opdivo, while Merck spent just $25 million, according to Kantar Media. But when it came specifically to just professional health journals, the two brands switched places. Merck spent $4.83 million on professional journal ads for Keytruda in 2016 according to Kantar Media, while BMS spent $1.36 million on Opdivo during the year.

Merck could not make a Keytruda executive available in time to comment for this article.

Merck may see the Keytruda TV campaign as a chance to push its lead after Opdivo faltered in a key first-line monotherapy study this past summer; Keytruda later showed it could beat out chemo in the space and snagged an FDA approval. 

Keytruda isn't the only med putting the hurt on Opdivo, though. Recently, BMS execs acknowledged that Roche's Tecentriq, which launched in late October, had taken 10 percentage points off Opdivo's market share in Q4.