Objecting to a new advertising campaign by Children's Claritin, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy and other groups wrote to the Federal Trade Commission arguing that the company's social media promotions violate the agency's policy against marketing over-the-counter products to children.
According to a letter authored by the Public Health Advocacy Institute, Merck customized its packaging for Children's Grape Chewables and Grape Syrup products and launched a series of tie-in promotions geared to coincide with the June 2012 release of Madagascar 3, an animated children's movie. The letter was also signed by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, ChangeLab Solutions, and Corporate Accountability International.
The promotions included free movie tickets with the purchase of a Claritin product at designated retailers, the inclusion of Madagascar character stickers with the product, and free, downloadable activity guides inspired by Madagascar characters on the Claritin Facebook page.
In addition, Merck's "Children's Claritin Mom Crew" – a group of bloggers selected by the company as product endorsers – held viewing parties to watch the movie. An online search of the bloggers' sites revealed photographs of children's food placed on tables near product samples of Children's Claritin and children posing with Claritin product samples.
The groups argued that since 1977, the agency has taken the position that children are unqualified to know whether or not they need products such as vitamins, a position that extends to over-the-counter drugs.
"Merck's use of Madagascar characters exploits this vulnerability and is unfair and deceptive. 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."
Noting that the Madagascar 3 promotion is the company's first with an entertainment product, the letter asks that the FTC "send a clear message" before it becomes a widespread trade practice.
"Marketing materials designed to appeal to children, like those used in Merck's Madagascar 3 campaign for its Children's Claritin products, violate the Commission's long-standing precedent in this area and are inherently unfair and deceptive," the groups contend.
To read the letter to the FTC, click here.
Why it matters: The FTC's 1977 decision held that television and print advertisements using Spider-Man to market vitamins directly to children were unfair and deceptive. "The same holds true, if not more so, with respect to OTC drugs," the groups argued in their letter to the agency. Merck told Adweek that it was reviewing the complaint. "We advertise in appropriate venues to reach parents and not directly to reach children themselves," a spokesperson said. "The advertising is directed to the parents of the children viewing the movies, not to the children themselves."