Is Madagascar 3's friendly lion a dangerous drug spokesman?

Was Merck's ($MRK) marketing tie-in with the kids' movie Madagascar 3 a no good, horrible, very bad idea? Public health groups say so--and they've asked Federal Trade Commission to investigate it.

Using Madagascar's goofy lion, sassy zebra and other cohorts to market grape-flavored, chewable Claritin could give kids the wrong idea, the groups contend. After all, the same characters grace McDonald's Happy Meals and hock children's snacks. Pint-sized consumers might assume the purple tablets are candy.

As AdWeek reports, the Public Health Advocacy Institute and 10 other organizations asked FTC to investigate the campaign, which features the characters on drug packaging, as well as in activities and games online. Merck offered free movie tickets with Claritin purchases, and the company set up Madagascar 3 viewing parties, complete with Claritin samples as party favors.

"Marketing medicine directly to children at all, much less through entertainment tie-ins, is well beyond the pale and is not only inherently unfair; it is downright dangerous," PHAI Executive Director Mark Gottlieb told AdWeek.

According to the groups' letter to the agency, the campaign violates FTC precedent. In 1977, the agency ruled that Spider-Man couldn't be used to market vitamins directly to children. "The same holds true, if not more so, with respect to OTC drugs," the petition said.

Merck says its marketing is aimed at parents, not kids. "We advertise in appropriate venues to reach parents and not directly to reach children," a spokeswoman told the trade pub. The company is reviewing the organizations' complaint.

- read the AdWeek piece