Pfizer's Lipitor ad returns, sans celebrity

When word leaked that Pfizer's celebrity doctor spokesperson had never actually practiced medicine, controversy heated up. The drug maker pulled its ads for Lipitor, which currently brings Pfizer about $12 billion a year, in February. Pfizer has spent over $250 million advertising Lipitor over the last two years.

According to the ads, the spokesperson, Dr. Robert Jarvik, invented the artificial heart valve. But according to the New York Times, a former colleague says he simply worked on different versions of prototypes designed by someone else. Jarvik earned at least $1.35 million during his two-year tenure as Pfizer spokesperson.

Both Congress and the medical community felt the ads were misleading--especially since Jarvik is not a cardiologist and does not have a medical license. In fact, he never has had a license and could not even prescribe the medication he was touting. The fact that he came off as a heart expert further added to the confusion. The ad had been running since 2006 (you can see the video here).

To make things worse, the ads showed Dr. Jarvik rowing, but it turned out he doesn't even pretend to row. Rather, a stunt double held the oars.

Now, Pfizer will be peddling its bestseller on the small screen once again, but they've nixed the questionable spokesperson. The new spokesperson (video) is actually a Lipitor patient, according to Pfizer execs.

The drug goes off patent in 2011. In the meantime, Pfizer will get back to DTC advertising and promoting Pfizer-funded studies that show Lipitor gets the job done.

For more proof that drug companies are getting crafty with their advertising, check out some of the PSA-type ads. Rather than mentioning the drug, the company talks only about a given condition and directs viewers to a website. For example, Pfizer's "My Time To Quit" commercials aimed at pushing Chantix don't actually mention Chantix, but sends patients to a website. When consumers get to the website, the side effects are there, but far less obvious than they would be on television. 

Pfizer isn't alone in the web-flavored advertising, however. Sanofi-Aventis is promoting Ambien at its website via a TV commercial that doesn't mention the drug or its side effects.

For their parts, the companies say their goal is increased advertising efficiency, but it is worth noting that Pfizer's quit-smoking website move happened right as Chantix was getting piles of negative press about side effects, including an increased risk of suicide.

Representative Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, chairperson of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations said, "We are taking a hard look at the deceptive tactics of drug companies in their direct-to-consumer advertising.  Drug companies should know that they will be held accountable for the representations made in their ads."

- see the Associated Press story
- read what the Wall Street Journal says
- find out more at the Red Orbit
get the Consumer Affairs angle