Tired of Ronald McDonald pushing cheeseburgers on your toddler? That's nothing compared to the pharmaceutical industry's new marketing campaign: using characters from Disney's Madagascar 3 movie to push over-the-counter drugs.
The pharmaceutical company Merck has been using Madagascar characters in its advertising for children's allergy medications—the company's Grape Flavored Chewable Children's Claritin and the related grape-flavored syrup, specifically. The drug maker has even gone so far as to recruit moms who blog to host Madagascar-themed viewing parties, at which moms were given free samples, free DVDs, and other paraphernalia to give to their children. The company is also handing out free movie tickets with the products when they're sold at Walgreens, and is including stickers for children in the boxes and creating Madagascar-themed games on the drug's Facebook page.
These moves drew the ire of 11 advocacy groups, who sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking the commission to review Merck's campaign. The letter was drafted by the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI), a nonprofit based at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, and was signed by representatives from other nonprofits, including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Corporate Accountability International, and Public Citizen.
In addition to blasting Merck for the sheer gall of marketing drugs using children's cartoon characters, the authors noted that those same characters were being used to promote Airhead candy, McDonald's Happy Meals, and 13 other kid-oriented food products. "The number of children’s food products featuring Madagascar-licensed characters creates a very real danger of product confusion that may lead children to over-consume Merck's grape-flavored allergy medication," the letter states. At some of the mom-blogger–hosted events, parents set out Madagascar-themed gummy snacks intended for children next to drug product samples that were given to parents.
The FTC has cracked down on similar practices in the past. In 1977, the commission ruled it was unacceptable to use Spiderman to market vitamins directly to children via television and print advertisements. Though PHAI says that the current Madagascar campaign is technically "child-directed" and similar to the Spiderman-vitamin case, Merck officials are saying that the products were advertised to parents in "appropriate venues."
"Children are unqualified to know whether or not they need or should use generic, let alone brand name, vitamins or, by extension, OTC drugs," the letter concludes. "The Madagascar campaign for Children's Claritin may induce children to request Merck's brand-name OTC drug, describe symptoms in order to get a sticker or to get medicine perceived to be candy. In addition, the inclusion of stickers with Children's Claritin is an invitation for children to seek out the drug on their own."